On Nostalgia: HBO’s ‘Watchmen’ and Black Religion in Three Sacred Facts

*This post is part of our online forum organized by Ahmad Greene-Hayes on HBO’s hit series Watchmen. 

Screenshot from HBO’s Watchmen

Warning: This essay contains spoilers from Watchmen, Season 1 (HBO). Those who wish to experience the show on their own time and terms, and without key character and plot details, should stop reading here.

I have indulged Watchmen in its entirety three times. Wrapping my mind around its sophistication, nuance, and timelessness eludes me, even with the help of an excellent timeline.1 This is, I believe, the show’s “ruse”: to reveal how so much of what we presume to know is informed by all that we cannot know.

The fine line Watchmen tows around knowing and unknowing places it within the broadest understanding of Black religious expression. Whether one strives to know oneself, or to know God, to seek community, or to be skeptical of any and all of those things, the uncertainty of human life and Black existence in particular is to accept ambiguity. Uncertainty, even in the face of facts; trust, even in the face of disbelief; hope, even in the face of despair are all at the heart of Black religion.2 We persevere, even while confronting the greatest adversity: an acceptance of Black death. All Black things come to an end … or do they?

Rather than focusing on what we cannot know, I choose to focus on what we can. Here are three facts about Watchmen that reveal how it is shockingly yet beautifully placed within the corpus of Black religion.

Fact One: Sister Night is a Badass, Black Madonna

One cannot talk about Watchmen and not gush over Regina King’s performance as Angela Abar and her alter ego Sister Night. Ever the consummate professional, King demonstrates why she is true to this acting game, not new to it, and she literally deserves all of the good things this life can give her.

The obvious connection between Sister Night and religion (second only to her ever-present hermeneutics of suspicion) is undergirded in Catholicism. Sister Night is a nun, yes, she’s married to a god, and her consumption of an egg in the season finale suggests something more than transubstantiation. But Sister Night’s justice is more than austere hope for divine retribution. Sister Night/Angela can also be seen as a manifestation of the Black Madonna because she enacts a radical ethic of love. It is her love — her love of justice, her love for her deceased police partner’s children, her love of Cal, and her willingness to fight for that love that births ultimate possibility.

Contrary to the “American monomyth” and its superhero companion, Angela is not perfect, nor is her apotheosis made possible through death: she certainly has a notion of the greater good and is willing to bust heads to ensure it. Yet her love is not selfless. She longs for love so deeply that she avoids reliance on false notions of paradise and utopia. She loves so passionately that she mistrusts a land where the state and government do everything but work on behalf of, let alone save, Black people. And, her love is wrapped up in hope alongside an unabashed willingness to fire and take shots for those she loves, even when their death is inevitable.

As Sister Night, Angela is a Black Madonna who whips ass, serves justice upon white racists, strives to upend the longstanding hold of white supremacy, and births a sacred community for herself and those she loves. Her promotion of a radical Black love is wrapped in justice-serving possibility. And, if that is not Black liberation theology, I am not sure what is.

Fact Two: “Lincoln Tunnel” Places Watchmen within a Legacy of Black Sacred Sound

You cannot be a legit visual analyst without taking the world within and around it — its diegetic and non-diegetic elements — seriously. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are adept musical creators of companion sound (see Bird Box and The Social Network). In episode 7, “An Almost Religious Awe,” an attentive listener-viewer recognizes the significance of using Paul Young’s “Every Time you Go Away” when June Reeves collapses and dies, and hears the important placement of “A Man Walks into an Intrinsic Field” alongside James Brown’s “Living in America” while young Angela traverses bustling Saigon. In all, Watchmen’s three-volume soundtrack tells a standalone story that echoes the show’s dystopic sentimentality.

The song “Lincoln Tunnel” most explicitly places Watchmen’s music within a legacy of Black sacred sound. In episode 8, “A God Walks into Abar,” we learn Dr. Manhattan and Angela’s backstory. The song’s haunting piano introduction signals key moments during their initial encounter, including when Dr. Manhattan takes Calvin Jelani’s embodied form, when Dr. Manhattan explains Angela’s profound desire for family, and when they share each other’s names.3 Its non-sequential inclusion signal the song’s yet-to-come cosmic shift.

“Lincoln Tunnel’s” placement calls our attention to one of the season’s most pivotal moments, taps into our emotional sensibilities, and reminds us how Black gospel sound simultaneously holds anguish, love, loss, and possibility in a way that few other sounds can. As Angela fights to save the love of her life, the song reaches its vocal peak, and the song’s choral “oohs” and a lean piano accompaniment give way to a robust choir. Armed with a heavy steel guitar presence, the choir’s harmonized “ohs,” “ahs,” and guttural ad-libs echo the glorious music that fills many a Black church. As Dr. Manhattan flexes his supernatural power, Black gospel sounds swell. They instruct us and we have all the feels. They signal his and Angela’s mutual love and their pending loss.

In all, “Lincoln Tunnel’s” conveys how hope, despair, freedom, and death collide. As Dr. Manhattan is captured, the song fades, echoing his pain and Angela’s anguish. Viewers become acclimated to music’s penchant for articulating the brutalities of subjugation, uncertainty, and death. More poignantly, the music effectively calls us to witness the longstanding legacies of Jim Crow and abject Black misery. Through aural ingenuity, Watchmen’s music cultivates visceral, emotive responses from us. And through its music, we are reminded of an alternative, not so distant, and equally painful past.

Fact Three: Watchmen Speaks in a Language of Black Sacred Possibility

Last, but certainly not least, Watchmen is a visual manifestation of ancestral connection, and thus speaks in a language of Black sacred possibility. We are often reminded of the importance of ancestral ties by various signage to Black existence — through the Tulsa Massacre and Redfordations, “the lifetime tax exemption for victims of and the direct descendants of, designated areas of racial injustice throughout America’s history …”;4 through Henry Louis Gates’s role as the United States Treasury Secretary (Gates actually brokers ancestral connections in real life); through the virtual family tree visible in the Greenwood Center for Cultural Heritage; and by way of the haunting image of Will Reeves’ mother at the piano. The language of possibility that permeates the show reminds us of the necessity of speaking to our ancestors, or, as I have called it, Talking to the Dead.

Most significantly, we are given access to that past via nostalgia, a drug manufactured by Trieu Industries “to give people the means to visit the past to learn from it, so they could evolve, transform, and better themselves.” As Agent Blake tells Sister Night, “you’re not supposed to take someone else’s nostalgia.” Yet it is not enough for Angela to know that Will Reeves (aka Hooded Justice) is her grandfather, and that he was “the very first masked vigilante, and he was Black, and … the guy who inspired two generations of heroes … who had to hide who he was because white men in masks are heroes, but Black men in masks are scary.” She had to understand his life, his feelings, and motivations, and how so much of that life was driven by the death and pain he suffered at the hands of white supremacy carried out by organizations such as Cyclops and the Seventh Kavalry. Angela had to understand her past in order to better know herself.

To know thyself, to remember one’s past and those in it, then, is “to go home,” as Angela’s grandmother states. Remembering, going home, and nostalgia all signal that no one is ever really truly alone and that there are witnesses to life, even if that life is one of suffering. This disruption of orphan theology and social death is tantamount to Black life, and Black religion.

In all Watchmen consistently calls us to remember and it encourages us to talk to the dead who live among and within us to better understand ourselves. More than that, Watchmen asks us to abandon romanticized nostalgia by wholly embracing the truths of our pasts. And the truth is, it is no coincidence that Dr. Manhattan abandoned his former love Jean Smart (a white woman) and chose to spend his remaining life (and death) with a Black woman (Angela). Even in his (in)ability to see the future, Dr. Manhattan recognized the infinite potential made available by generations of hope, pain, loss, and love and the ways they conjoin past, present, and future at the intersection of Black experience. What is Ultimate Possibility, after all, if she is not Black?

  1.  Those new to Watchmen—the 1980s comic and the 2009 film—might well read Adam Sternbergh’s “‘Watchmen’ is Coming. (Actually, It Never Left).New York Times October 16, 2019.
  2. I define “Black religion as the effervescent, ethereal, psychic, metaphysical, soulful expressive systems of belief to which Black folks throughout the diaspora hold. See L.S. Manigault-Bryant, “Religion” in Keywords for African American Studies edited by Erica Edwards et al (New York: NYU Press, 2018).
  3. In Episode 8, follow the song’s inclusion at 20:40, 50:30, and 57:10, respectively.
  4. James Hibberd, “Damon Lindelof gives his first deep-dive interview for HBO’s Watchmen.” Entertainment Weekly, September 18, 2019.
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Rhon Manigault-Bryant

LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant is Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Williams College. She is the author of Talking to the Dead: Religion, Music, and Lived Memory among Gullah/Geechee Women (Duke University Press), and co-author of Womanist and Black Feminist Responses to Tyler Perry’s Productions (Palgrave Macmillan) with Tamura A. Lomax and Carol B. Duncan. You can find her adding colorful commentary to the digital universe via Twitter @DoctorRMB.

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