Computer sits on table with "Woke" on the screen and a bag of popcorn to the right
Illustration by Maya Winshell

“Woke” uses comedy to portray Black experience in the U.S.

On Sept. 9, Hulu released the first season of its original comedy series “Woke.” The show is directed by Lamorne Morris, who played Winston Bishop in the Fox comedy series “New Girl.” Morris also takes the starring role in “Woke,” playing the character of Keef Knight, a cartoonist struggling to find his place in the fight for social justice. Knight’s character is based on the real cartoonist by the name of Keith Knight, who created and wrote the show. 

Over the course of eight episodes, Keef and his two roommates, Clovis (T. Murph) and Gunther (Blake Anderson), confront some of the most topical issues in the U.S. today, including racial inequality, police violence, sexuality and the stigma associated with mental health. This is done in a witty, somewhat jarring style that fits with the cartoon motif. Warning: minor thematic spoilers ahead. 

First and foremost, “Woke” attempts to tackle the issue of racial injustice in the U.S. In the first episode, Keef is mistaken for a suspect in a mugging case and is tackled to the ground by police officers with guns drawn. He is released relatively unharmed, and even though we have only known Keef for a few minutes as viewers, we can tell that this traumatic event shakes him to his core. Immediately following this, Keef stumbles his way into a liquor store in search of some water, but instead is accosted by talking malt liquor bottles. This clear symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) continues throughout the show, wherein Keef converses with trash cans, a paper bag, an advertisement on a bus and, most importantly, his favorite marker (voiced by J.B. Smoove). 

While creating characters out of inanimate objects was a nice touch to supplement the theme of cartooning, there seemed to be a glorification of a serious mental illness. Keef starts talking to these objects halfway through the first episode. His friends catch him doing it a few times throughout the series, and they are quick to believe his stories that he is just working new material out loud. Keef also exhibits uncharacteristic behavior in the form of anger or violence on multiple occasions. Still, even with all of these blatant nods to mental illness and PTSD, the word therapy is not mentioned until the very end of the seventh episode. When the show does finally address mental illness in the opening sequence of the finale, it is by having the inanimate objects talk about the stigma of going to therapy, especially in the Black community. Though this is a salient message, it felt a little anticlimactic to address the underlying issue so head-on. Keef’s symptoms are so obvious to the viewer from the very first episode that when the show gets around to talking about them after three and a half hours of content it no longer feels like the “ah-ha” moment it seems like the writers were going for. It feels more like the show is explaining what every viewer already knew from the beginning.

It is also interesting that the show is set in San Francisco, a city widely thought to be a liberal nesting ground. It is portrayed in the show as having quite a dark and ugly underbelly. From subtle microaggressions to overt racism to downright ignorance, San Franciscans in the “Woke” universe are not actually as racially conscious as they might have you believe. For example, in the episode “Black People for Rent,” Keef attempts to make a statement about being used as a prop at parties because he is Black by putting up posters with the tagline “Black People for Rent.” He includes his phone number on the flyer, expecting to get “the bleeding hearts,” people that understand the message and just called to commiserate, but what he does not expect is for people to take the flyer seriously. A child asks his mom if he can rent one for his birthday, and a man comments that “since we can’t own them anymore, I guess renting is the next best thing,”. But what shocks Keef the most is how many Black people call looking for work. Though this example might be a little dramatized, it cuts to the core of what no one likes to acknowledge about the U.S.: racism still exists, even in a liberal city like San Francisco. 

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the whole show is its premise: the fact that the character who is being oppressed wants to pretend it is not happening. Up until we meet Keef he has been the go-along-to-get-along cartoonist, happy to make his “Toast n Butter” comic with jokes that will make the reader chuckle and pay his rent. He never thought about using his platform to support a cause. This is what makes “Woke” so unique. There are hundreds of shows out there right now that chronicle the Black struggle in the U.S. There are hundreds of brilliant, heart-wrenching documentaries and biopics, and though they are important pieces of art and commentary, especially right now, they all have one thing in common: every Black character, either publicly or privately, wants to fight their oppressor. “Woke” brings in a different perspective. Keef Knight just wants to be a cartoonist who does not have to worry about anything but his career. In fact, the first thing he says to Clovis and Gunther after being beaten by the police is that he “knew it happened, (he) just never thought it would happen to (him).” It is a unique take. He is an almost reluctant activist, constantly struggling between what is good for him and his career and what might be better for the greater good. 

I appreciated how the show did not stereotype all of the Black actors as activists simply because they are Black. I also liked how the show dealt with racism. The character of Ayana (played by Sasheer Zamata of SNL) is the traditional activist who pushes Keef to not bow down to the pressure; to stay in his lane even though cancel culture is scary, but she is also a queer Black woman who really just wants to be loved. Clovis is Black but he is about as far away from activism as it gets; he supported Keef’s “Black People for Rent” not because of the message, but because he started an apparel line sporting the slogan to make a profit. It adds to the conversation about race in the U.S. in a meaningful way while still staying true to its roots as a comedy show. While a follow-up season has yet to be confirmed, “Woke” season one is absolutely worth watching and could not have been released at a more poignant time.

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