The series premiere of HBO’s Watchmen opens with a black-hooded figure in hot pursuit of a lawman; he quickly finds himself lassoed in front of a stunned church congregation. So far, so Watchmen. But then the cloaked man reveals himself to be the legendary Bass Reeves—the real-life, first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi—and he then exposes his hogtied quarry as the corrupt white sheriff who’s been rustling all the local cattle. “He doesn’t deserve the badge,” Reeves (played by Jamal Akakpo) tells the grateful townspeople, who cheer as this vigilante liberates them from a villain who’d disguised himself as their protector.
The scene, rendered in the style of an old silent movie, offers a distillation of the major questions posed by both the series and the acclaimed graphic novel it’s based on: Who gets to be a “hero”? What actually motivates them? And, most importantly, why should we trust them?
As in the book, Damon Lindelof’s Watchmen offers an uneasy blur of historical fact and comic fiction, existing in an alternate timeline that deviates from our own with details both minor and cosmically significant. As we’re watching Reeves’s movie-within-a-movie, the camera pulls back to reveal a black child watching this very scene raptly inside a theater, his idyll suddenly broken by an eruption outside: the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, in which white mobs attacked the black neighborhoods of Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street,” slaughtering dozens of people, injuring scores more, and burning their homes and businesses to the ground.
In the show, as in the United States, racial violence lies at the root of tensions that still simmer today. Watchmen’s nation, much like ours, is bitterly and politically divided, with fascism on the rise and white supremacists rearing their ugly heads. Except in Watchmen, both the racists and the cops wage war from behind masks, superheroes are real, and the idea of who “deserves the badge” is a constant struggle. (Also, Robert Redford is the president and squids occasionally fall from the sky.)
Although he was never a movie hero, Reeves was a real person whose exploits often verged on the fantastical. He was born into slavery in 1838, part of a family that was owned by Arkansas state legislator William Reeves. In 1846, when Bass was around eight years old, William Reeves moved to Grayson County, Texas, not far from Sherman. Reeves’s son, George, would serve as first tax collector, then sheriff of Grayson County, beginning a life of public service that would eventually see him become speaker of the House of Representatives in the Texas State Legislature.
But before that came the Civil War, where George Reeves served as a colonel in the 11th Texas Cavalry. He took Bass with him into battle. Historians are shaky on what exactly happened next—some say George and Bass got into an argument over a card game that led to Bass brutally beating his master; others say he simply snuck away in the middle of the night—but at some point during the war, Bass escaped and lived among the Creek, Cherokee, and Seminole tribes as a fugitive, learning their respective languages and earning their respect. When Bass Reeves was finally freed by the Thirteenth Amendment, he returned to Arkansas in 1865, married a Texas woman named Nellie Jennie and settled on a farm; they had ten children.
When Judge Isaac C. Parker was appointed to the Western District of Arkansas in 1875, he immediately set about bringing Indian Territory under the heel of federal law, and called on U.S. marshal James Fagan to hire deputies who could round up murderers and thieves who ran across the vast region. Fagan sought Reeves out specifically because he knew the area. The fact that he stood six-foot-two and was deadly with a pistol certainly didn’t hurt.
Reeves spent nearly twenty years in his role as the first black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi, before moving from Arkansas to Paris, Texas, in 1893, then relocating again in 1897 to Oklahoma. When he finally retired in 1909, after some 32 years in law enforcement, he laid claim to apprehending more than three thousand fugitives, facing down some of the most dangerous criminals America’s ever known while never sustaining a single wound himself. He was an exemplary lawman, hailed for his marksmanship and his detective skills, and for an unwavering moral code that, in one particularly dark and telling chapter, even saw him arrest his own son for murder. Reeves was a legend—exactly the kind of hero whose story is celebrated on the screen.
Here’s where Watchmen and our world diverge. There was no Bass Reeves movie in 1921—nor would there be one for another century or so. Instead, Reeves’s story seemed to fade into the general tapestry of Wild West myth. In his 2006 biography Black Gun, Silver Star: The Life and Legend of Frontier Marshal Bass Reeves, Art T. Burton made the case that Reeves may have been the real-life inspiration for the Lone Ranger. His argument rested on a few similarities: They both worked closely with Native Americans. They both often wore disguises to trap criminals. They both left behind silver calling cards (bullets for the Lone Ranger, dollars for Reeves). What’s more, Burton pointed out, The Lone Ranger began as a radio serial in Detroit, where many of the criminals Reeves had arrested were eventually imprisoned and, presumably, groused about the man who’d caught them. Still, it remains pure speculation; there’s never been any conclusive evidence linking the two. And while Reeves may be the only lawman in U.S. history whose accomplishments exceeded those of the Lone Ranger’s, his life has long remained eclipsed by the tall tales of an imaginary white man.
Since Burton’s book, there have been a few inroads toward correcting that. Reeves was inducted into the Texas Trail of Fame in 2013; he’s had bronze statues erected in his likeness, and a bridge in Oklahoma now bears his name. But for a man whose true story rivals Wild West pulp, it’s appalling that he’s never been given proper treatment on the big screen.
In 2010, San Antonio-based indie filmmaker Brett William Mauser did make the biopic Bass Reeves, a no-budget, straight-to-video affair shot with Central Texas actors wearing costumes that have been hailed as “adequate.” To date, it remains the only feature made about him. Reeves is the subject of a short film on YouTube, and he was a minor character in Jeymes Samuel’s 2013 short They Die By Dawn, haunting the margins of a Western fantasy starring Rosario Dawson, Michael K. Williams, and Erykah Badu. Reeves also popped up as a literal ghost in an episode of the SyFy series Wynonna Earp, and appeared in more corporeal form to aid the time-traveling crimefighters of NBC’s Timeless. Still, the most widely-seen portrayal of Bass Reeves has, until now, probably been an episode of Drunk History, where Reeves was played by none other than Jaleel “Urkel” White.
It’s notable that the young man who’s seen in Watchmen‘s opening flashback, marveling at Reeves’s imaginary cinematic escapades, eventually returns as a much older man played by Louis Gossett Jr. Presumably, his Reeves worship will carry over into the show’s present day, potentially offering another parallel to the original Watchmen comic where a black teenager named Bernie is frequently seen reading a graphic novel about pirates called “Tales of the Black Freighter.” These interludes don’t just illustrate pop-culture diversions people might be privy to in an alternate world where superheroes are real. They also function as an intertextual dialogue with the main story, teasing out various analogies to what the main characters are going through.
In Watchmen‘s world, the legend of Bass Reeves promises to play a similarly poignant role—not only as a way of investigating its fraught racial history, or illustrating just how easily that history can be subverted or outright erased (like the Tulsa massacre itself). But his importance can be summed up by the declaration the fictional Reeves makes, to his young fan’s delight: “There will be no mob justice today. Trust in the law!” It’s a moment the episode’s director, Nicole Kassell, has called “absolutely thematically essential” to the show.
It might also be a form of backdoor marketing. HBO has reportedly been prepping a Bass Reeves miniseries since 2015, with Morgan Freeman co-producing a script from Lone Star’s John Sayles that’s based on Burton’s book. (Freeman has been trying to make a movie about Reeves since the ’90s, back when he was still young enough to play Reeves himself.) Although there haven’t been any updates since then, it’s entirely possible that Watchmen could generate enough interest in Reeves’s story to finally get it going. And it could even face some competition from Amazon Studios, who announced last year that a Reeves biopic was in the works from The Rider’s Chloé Zhao.
For now, the show has already sparked a long-overdue appreciation of one of the most remarkable and shamefully unsung characters of Western lore. Although Watchmen approaches its own heroes with suspicion, in our world it may finally allow Bass Reeves to become one.