Hulu’s Woke, starring Lamorne Morris, starts with a simple introduction: “Inspired by one experience…shared by many.”
As the title suggests, this is a show about realizing and responding to racial injustice in modern America, with some cackling cartoons thrown in. Yes, Woke is timely, it’s 2020, it’s essential — but if the show is making any statement you haven’t heard by now, you need to wake the fuck up.
Woke does not sanctify its protagonist’s trauma, nor does it have time to spare for nonblack education and guilt. It’s effervescent, irreverent, and sharp — exactly the kind of comedy we need.
Morris plays Keef Knight, a San Francisco-based cartoonist gaining local fame for the newspaper strip “Toast ‘N’ Butter.” Keef prides himself on being able to “keep it light,” not wanting to be labeled as a controversial artist simply because he’s Black. “You’re a Black cartoonist. You’re controversial just by existing,” a reporter played by Sasheer Zamata tells him, but he insists the toast is just toast, the butter is just butter. There’s no deeper commentary in his work, and he loves that.
But everything shifts after a run in with SFPD, in which officers hold him at gunpoint and pin him to the ground. They’ve got the wrong man, and while Keef escapes any physical harm, the psychological damage is done. He’s shocked, he’s traumatized — and, as his friend notes in horror, he’s woke.
The show is based on the work and experiences of creator Keith Knight (with Marshall Todd as co-creator), whose cartoons vary from light to political and everything in between. After Keef’s violent encounter with the police, he starts hallucinating inanimate objects as talking cartoons. In the first episode alone he talks to malt liquor, a dumpster, and an antique spoon that declares it was plundered by white men who raped horses.
“When you tell me you don’t see color, you are choosing to ignore a very important part of who I am.”
Over the course of eight episodes, Keef rediscovers and grapples with his voice as an artist. The whimsical, keep-it-light Keef Knight is no more, but Woke Keef stumbles his way through satire, terrified of offensive or inflammatory material until he finds the power in both. The cast and writers will make you chortle and cringe as Keef navigates his awakening, often with embarrassing yet empowering public outbursts as he’s haunted by his cartoon woke whisperers. To put it in film terms, Woke invokes the twisted race commentary of Sorry to Bother You rather than the straightforward treachery of Get Out.
T. Murph and Blake Anderson deftly push the show’s humor as Keef’s roommates, Anderson squirming through a hipster caricature of white privilege, and Murph reckoning with with his character’s ingrained misogyny, including an MLK joke that any other actor would crash and burn but Murph lands with the confidence of Sully Sullenberger on the Hudson. The cartoons themselves are voiced by a stacked list of talent, including Sam Richardson, Tony Hale, and J.B. Smoove. Almost all of them are deliberately Black and voiced by Black actors — a direct contrast to Hollywood’s previous missteps with race and voice casting, as these characters understand Keef’s joy, pain, and current conundrum.
After the first episode, Keef finds every area of his life fraught with racial injustice or fetishism. He thinks twice about how his agents represent him, his white roommate’s privilege, his relationship with Adrienne (Rose McIver) — the latter being particularly tough since she’s from New Zealand, carrying different baggage in their relationship than would a white American woman.
The cheekiest bit of comedy in all of Woke is its very premise, since the sad fact of America throughout its history is that rarely do Black people have the luxury of discovering racial injustice. The word “woke” itself has been co-opted by people who treat it as performance, but the best outcome of performance is that life imitates art and more people act on their new knowledge. And it’s not enough just to see the world as it is. Keef’s cartoon visions constantly hound him to do something, say something, to stand for something difficult even if it makes him uncomfortable. Over the course of the season, he does that and more.
Woke is now streaming on Hulu.
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