by Mik Awake
In the summer of 2014, Aaron McGruder’s comedy series “Black Jesus” sparked a relatively small conflagration of self-righteousness, from little more than its title and premise. USA Today collected statements from both black and white religious leaders across the country who were disgusted by its depiction of Jesus Christ. A Christian media-watchdog site that tracks things like “lesbian kisses” told its followers that the show “makes a mockery of our Lord.” And before the season had aired, a Change.org petition to get the show canceled gathered almost 2,500 signatures. These people were angry, no doubt, at what they saw as the oxymoronic proximity of the two words, and the blasphemy they seemed to suggest. Imagine the fallout, these critics argued, if someone had made a TV show “mocking” the prophet Mohammed. Even critics who weren’t as race-baited or angry still felt that the show was a “spoof,” trying to undermine the idea of Jesus, and that, nevertheless, the power of Jesus’s teachings would “survive” the show.
Two seasons of “Black Jesus” later, and a third coming this year (as well as a feature film reportedly in development), the only thing anyone can seem to agree on about the series is that it is meant to be a satire, light fare, a stoner serial, or as AV Club’s Eric Thurm put it, “a pleasant, relatively mindless high.” That is fair and understandable, considering that the show shares a network with “Assy McGee” and “Mary Shelley’s Frankenhole.” But is it really a spoof? Is Black Jesus mindless, blaxploitative satire? I am here to tell ye that it is not. In fact, I am here to tell ye that “Black Jesus” is one of the most subversive and thought-provoking re-imaginings of the Jesus narrative you will ever see, and that it is the most under-appreciated show on television.
The show’s premise is blatantly silly — dumb, even. In the beginning, it was this aspect of the show — its stoner silliness and the reputation of its network — that kept me from watching. The fact that it lives on Adult Swim is a kind of sneaky art-audience trap. The series revolves around a tall thirty-something-year-old black man who sports a goatee, silky chestnut hair, and a flowing robe and sandals straight out of Ephesians. Gerald “Slink” Johnson plays Jesus with infectious, swaggering charm, and the character spends most of his waking hours getting into and out of trouble with his crew of acolytes, often whiling away entire days smoking weed, drinking malt liquor, and chilling in an apartment courtyard in Southwest Compton. The pilot episode is called “Smokin,’ Drinkin’, and Chillin’” after a goofy ditty Jesus likes to sing around his crew. And not unlike a majority of his friends, Black Jesus’s father, an entity referred to simply as “Pops,” is never around — one of the many tropes of black life that the show gives tongue-in-cheek existential heft.
How is this black man Jesus? Was he immaculately conceived? Is he a kind of melanin-infused clone of the one from Nazareth? Or more like an identical twin deal? Was there another Mary and Joseph situation? The show never explains. He just is Jesus. Of his divine lineage, the show seems to say: Don’t think too much about it. Even my choice not to capitalize the “his” in the previous sentence is part of the trickiness of talking about the character. Black Jesus performs seemingly petty miracles that get his crew out of pickles, each miracle accompanied by the same kitschy wind-chimes-in-a-breeze sound. He turns water into cognac. The bowl of his goblet is a red Dixie cup. He heals a trigger-happy Mexican gangbanger’s wound moments after having inflicted it with one of those antique slingshots David probably used to bean Goliath. He can tell if you need to incorporate more fiber into your diet. After a tense confrontation with a traffic cop who has just written his dilapidated van a ticket, Black Jesus watches the officer waddle away. “Hey Eugene,” he hollers, not without spite. “Go get your colon checked, pimp.” His disciple-friends think he’s a mooch. His nemesis calls him a con-man and a cult leader. He is fallible, compassionate, party-loving, unemployed, and black. He doesn’t seem to understand the value of money at all, but he knows the names and secrets of every stranger he meets. No one is ever really impressed by these abilities.
We laugh at Jesus’s cartoonish admixture of visual and verbal registers, the middling use of his divine powers, his mashup of Compton-slang and King James: “That dude frolicks hard,” he says of one of his goats. We laugh that he has goats. We laugh when he drops the biblical act altogether, dusty garments hanging like wings from his widespread arms: “You get money fucking with me!” This is funny — Our Lord and Savior using brash, contemporary idioms while in a desert robe. During a memorable guest appearance at the tail end of the first season, rapper Coolio (another anachronistic figure who rapped about paradise) voices a central paradox of the show when he says to Black Jesus, “You don’t even act like Jesus supposed to act.” Of course, what’s noteworthy here isn’t whether or not Coolio is right, but that the show is concerned with the question of how Jesus is supposed to act.
Every version of the Jesus story, whether written by atheists or believers, features some magnification of the demigod’s personality over another. A lot of thought goes into what gets magnified. Whether these depictions are tonally serious or tongue-in-cheek, whether they claim narrative lineage to the Bible or not, isn’t as important as the fact that Jesus lives, first, in story. He is Jesus of Narrative. And the Jesus of Narrative is very old, older than Jesus of Nazareth, as any Comparative Religion major will tell you; versions of the Christ character appear in ancient literatures long before the birth of the shepherd from Judea. Not even Christians own Jesus of Narrative. It’s easy to see how the pliability of Jesus of Narrative might seduce a brilliant provocateur like McGruder, whose Jesus remains surprisingly faithful to the core message of the New Testament. As Black Jesus reminds everyone ad nauseam, he has “come down here to spread love.” In the scheme of the show, this usually amounts to trying to feed people — via a community garden in the first season, then a taco truck in the second. Often, the response Black Jesus gets to his quixotic, idealistic calls for love is swift, brutal, and pragmatic: This is Compton. This is America. Money talks, love bullshit walks.
And, because Jesus has manifested in a black body, he has been saddled with the hardest job in the universe, a job so seemingly difficult that it’s actually funny he’s even trying. Now, don’t get me wrong. The show doesn’t have a clear, discernible message. Or if it does, words like “message” and “spoof” are little help in pinpointing what makes it by turns funny and powerful. As we laugh at the goats, the hair, the goblet, and his friend Boonie’s spat over child support, the show also turns our laughter back on itself: what’s so funny about a black man who talks like a thug preaching love and kindness? Is it funny that Black Jesus is preaching love and kindness in a broken-hearted ghetto of America, which lives in the shadows of Hollywood’s glittering Babylon? Isn’t this, the most unlikely place to find love and kindness, the only place for Jesus to be?
Indeed, if Jesus came to America in our current historical moment, he would most certainly be poor and invisible. As McGruder said in an interview with Vice, “It’s only because this story has been hijacked for so long, that the idea of Jesus as an actual poor person seems crazy. So really this is a show about people who are just like anyone else, except they don’t have shit. And in many ways, Jesus’s message is that you don’t need shit, you just need love and kindness.”
The uncomfortable laughter doesn’t stop at pushing class-race buttons. The show poses questions as much for white audiences as for black ones, believers and nonbelievers. Vanity, forgiveness, fundamentalism, free will, and consumerism: no moral or ethical dilemma is safe from the show’s kidding-not-kidding inquiry. When Black Jesus and his out-on-parole friend, Fish, find Lloyd, an alcoholic tramp, prone and half-naked in Fish’s living room after having ransacked the fridge, Black Jesus calms his irate friend: “Right now is not the time for anger, man. It’s the time for forgiveness, man. He sick.” Black Jesus scoops the bum into his arms and carries him down the staircase, in a pietà through the Compton looking glass. Bluesy guitar plays over a dissolve into a dreamlike vision: Bay and Appaloosa horses graze in the desolate alleyways of Compton, and just like that a running gag throughout Season One hearkening back to a manure heist gone awry transforms into a thing of surreal, ephemeral beauty.
Smash cut: Lloyd pissing in a barrel the next day.
In the opening shot of the final episode of the first season, Black Jesus sits alone in a diner. For the first time on the show, he is not wearing his flowing robe and sandals. Instead, he’s in a black hoodie, his long silky chestnut mane inexplicably gone. He bangs the table with his fist and other people in the restaurant cast suspicious, frightened glances at him, as he sits muttering to his “Pops.” Later that episode, while wandering through town, on the run from the police who will eventually lock him up in a mental ward, Black Jesus freezes in his tracks as an SUV swoops in out of nowhere. A white man in sunglasses hops out and yells, “I’m standing my ground!” before firing a huge revolver at Black Jesus, who ducks and flees over music reminiscent of “The Benny Hill Show” credits.
You have to go beyond America, beyond our present day, and beyond TV to find a depiction of a Jesus as original as “Black Jesus.” Take Ivan Karamozov’s “Grand Inquisitor” tale in The Brothers Karamazov, wherein Jesus is reincarnated during the Spanish Inquisition, only to be murdered by the Christian Inquisitors for his heretical message of renouncing worldly goods. The paradoxical message is that Jesus’s teachings in their purest form are radical and anti-authoritarian. To be Christ means to be loathed by the powerful and loved by the weak. So when you plant a version of Jesus in Spain during the Inquisition, or in a post-industrial American city, that message of love, kindness, and an equitable distribution of wealth can’t help but sound ridiculous, blasphemous even. And if we know anything about Jesus of Narrative, we know that there is only one way that his epic story can end. Spoiler alert: it’s hilarious.
Photo: Adult Swim