This year has been unrelenting. Between the global pandemic, the ongoing fight for racial justice and equity, and most recently, the onslaught of wildfires tearing through the west coast (just to name a few major headlines from the past six months), it’s all been—in David Rose-speak—“a bit much.” Arguably, these cumulative threats to our collective and individual health have opened up some very necessary conversations about the lives many of us had been leading prior to the pandemic—over-caffeinated, over-worked, under-rested, blinders on, aimlessly shuffling toward an elusive, capitalist-created goal—so it’s not exactly all been for naught. In other words, the awful truths of our shared reality have been exposed, and now it’s up to us to decide what to do about it.
In Hulu’s new series Woke, fictional cartoonist Keef Knight (based on real-life cartoonist Keith Knight) is going through a similar awakening, though his newfound wokeness comes in a pre-pandemic world. The series was shot entirely before lockdown, and it shows. Lamorne Morris, perhaps best known as Winston from New Girl, plays Keef, a Black San Francisco-based cartoonist who just wants to work on his comic strip “Toast & Butter” without getting ensnared in identity politics—or anything too controversial, for that matter. He likes to “keep it light,” as he tells Ayanna (Saturday Night Live’s Sasheer Zamata), but as the title of the show reveals, the universe has greater plans in store for him.
After being mistaken for a mugger and thrown to the ground by police in a public square, Keef is all shook up and blessed with the “superpower” of interacting with a whole peanut gallery of inanimate objects ranging from a talking trash can to a sassy 40 oz. bottle of malt liquor to, naturally, his favorite pen. Each have a lot to say. Their message to him is clear: you’re woke now and there’s no turning back.
Police brutality is nothing new. Anti-Blackness is nothing new. In a pre-pandemic, pre-George Floyd, pre-Breonna Taylor, pre-Jacob Blake world, there have been plenty of instances of false convictions (the Central Park Five) and the murder of unarmed victims (Trayvon Martin). Just because a cop hasn’t pulled a gun on you, specifically, doesn’t mean that systemic issues don’t affect your life. But this, by and large, is how Keef has skated through life prior to the public square incident—seemingly unaware, or simply unwilling to acknowledge, the racism that permeates even progressive, “woke” San Francisco. Which, in the context of the world we live in today, feels just about as plausible as a talking fountain pen.
The unavoidable question that crops up as the eight-episode series plays out is: Who is the intended audience for this show? Given the high-tension, high-stakes reality that we exist within these days, it feels woefully off-tone to assume that there are Black people who might similarly think that the whole “race thing” is just being blown out of proportion. And the way Keef ultimately begins to proselytize about the new truths he’s discovered is so on-the-nose that one has to wonder who exactly would find these revelations fresh and eye-opening. (For instance, at one point early on, he’s horrified to realize that his publishers have lightened his skin in publicity photos. At another point, Keef is paid by a wealthy white woman to attend an upscale party, where he’s somehow surprised that he has to endure awkward questions about reparations and Black culture, a la Get Out.)
In short, the answer seems to be this: Woke is either intended to be for an earnest, predominantly white audience, or it is a tongue-in-cheek satire that plays on tropes and stereotypes. At present, though, it tiptoes on a fine line between the two possibilities without fully committing to either, making it a confusing show to grasp, tonally.
And it probably doesn’t help that the introduction of anthropomorphic characters throws a light-hearted spin on otherwise serious subject matter. (The characters are voiced by a litany of all-stars, by the way, including Cedric the Entertainer, Nicole Byer, J.B. Smoove, and Tony Hale, among others). Whereas the scene where police tackle Keef feels visceral and disorienting and unflinchingly real, Keef’s more comedic response to things like gentrification (trying to throw a talking garbage can through the window of a barber shop) or representation (having a cringe-worthy meltdown after arguing with his pen during a launch event) almost makes being woke seem like a goofy state of mind rather than a real condition for change.
Not to knock the use of magical realism and surrealist elements, of course. Other Black-helmed series have done so with remarkable success, like Boots Riley’s 2018 satire Sorry to Bother You, or any number of episodes from Donald Glover’s Atlanta. What worked with the surrealist imagination in those series, however, was how seamlessly and purposefully those elements were woven into the narrative. With Woke, the cartoonish objects seem like a gimmick for comedic relief than a chance to dig into racially charged subject matter in a real, necessary way. And so the series’ message feels convoluted at best and a bit lost at worst, unsure of whether to mock or champion Keef’s newfound wokeness.
To be fair, though, a big part of why Woke probably feels a tad off-key is because of the timing of its release. Had the Hulu series been released this time last year, it might have made waves and instigated conversations in a more meaningful way. But in the context of the chaos and social upheaval that is 2020, the gentler messaging falls flat. Comedy is meant to be a reprieve from reality; it can also be a way into it. Surrealism can be a tool to make tougher social issues more palatable to a mainstream audience, and a jumping point into broader discussions that could, ostensibly, spark change. But in the instance of Keef and his unwavering dedication to the world of “Toast & Butter,” having the privilege to ignore of the terrors of daily living is perhaps still too much a stretch of the imagination for the show to find its place in today’s reality.
Woke is now streaming on Hulu.
Joyce Chen is a writer/editor/creator from LA who spent a decade in NYC before relocating back to the West Coast in fall 2017. She has covered entertainment and human interest stories for Rolling Stone, Refinery29, Paste magazine, the New York Daily News, and People, and her creative writing credits include LitHub, Narratively, and Barrelhouse, among others. She is one of the cofounders of The Seventh Wave, a bicoastal arts and literary nonprofit, and holds an MFA from The New School and a BA in journalism and psychology from USC.
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