Hulu’s ‘Woke’ Is Subdued Comedy With a Relevant Theme About Willful Ignorance
It is almost a natural law that art, in any form, is influenced by the times. If you want to get a good sense of the ‘60s just put on any classic album from the period. But what happens when the artist is willingly aloof? Hulu’s “Woke” is a bare yet relevant comedy from cartoonist Keith Knight, who as a Black American cartoonist knows very deeply how art can’t help but express historical experience, past and present. It’s based on Knight’s own encounter with discrimination by law enforcement, and even in its at times tepid attitude, has a sincerity that rings truer than more militant shows or movies.
Knight’s TV alter ego is Keef Knight (Lamorne Morris), a Black cartoonist living in San Francisco who has a wide audience with his “Toast and Butter” comic strip. It’s goofy and safe, devoid of social or political content. Keef is comfortable with it that way, even when a journalist, Ayana (Sasheer Zamata), calls him out for refusing to have an active voice. Keef would rather play it safe since a major publishing company is about to put his work on national syndication, and they’re very open about how comfortable they feel with its lite, comfortable tone. While putting up posters for a launch event, Keef is violently cornered and held down by white police officers who automatically mistake him for a mugging suspect. The incident shakes Keef, making him realize he is not immune to the kind of discrimination minorities in the U.S. are protesting every day. His new consciousness begins to take shape in the form of his art, as cartoon visions begin to plague him wherever he goes, mocking him for being ignorant about gentrification and racism, while his Toast and Butter creations try to keep him on the safe and ignorant track.
“Woke” is getting some backlash for being either too toned down or too late in its commentary. It is true that some of the characters are a bit generic, although well performed, like Keef’s womanizing roommate Clovis (T. Murph) and Gunther (Blake Anderson), the token white friend who is so woke he sells cocaine with fancy, invented brand names. There’s also not much development to the character of Keef’s love interest, Kerstin (Lara Goldie), who is white and therefore provides material for a lot of symbolic debating. There’s also not much of a build-up to Keef’s “awakening,” which adds to the show’s general feeling that everyone here is representing an idea, either political or as a TV stereotype.
Where “Woke” does deliver half-way is in its central idea and in the surreal cartoon moments involving Keef and his hallucinations. The former at least stands out as a theme rarely addressed in socially conscious TV dramas. It might be shocking to some that a Black artist in his 30s would be so naïve as to believe police abuses would never threaten to reach him, but many people, no matter in what community, do live in bubbles. There’s a running joke that Keef is always broke, but he’s also not a political person. There are many people like this, who even in 2020 would rather not discuss the elections, Black Lives Matter, or even the pandemic, because it’s so much easier to be willfully ignorant. Keef is the kind of person who must thoroughly apply the saying to never bring up politics or religion at the dinner table. Not every Latinx took the streets when Trump applied his family separation policies at the border. The writing of the show could use some more fire in the belly, but it’s not wrong at least in the skeleton of its pitch, that some people ignore the world until the world comes for them. Keef tells Ayana in the series premiere that, “Why is it that as people of color we’re always having to stand for something?” Some viewers may agree, others will opine that while you can’t put people in a box, it is also hard to ignore when urgent social changes are afoot. Then there are the cartoon moments, which are genuinely funny in how they capture the imagination of a person used to seeing the world in terms of illustrations. Trash cans, beer bottles and pens speak to Keef, as if capturing his debating subconscious. There’s even a hilarious homage to “Do the Right Thing” involving a talking trash bin Keef aims at a gentrified barbershop, where hipster white owners have taken over but keep it “authentic” with Malcolm X portraits on the wall.
Only a few times does “Woke” truly go for the jugular, much of in the season finale. Throughout the season there are splashes of stronger satire, particularly when the show takes aim at San Francisco’s habit of presenting itself as a woke zone devoid of racism (but not deliriously high rent). When Keef decides to speak out during what should be the syndication launch of his strip, the publishers berate him for taking a stance. In the finale there is a moment both darkly funny but also intense where Keef, now turning his experience with the police into a fiery cartoon, meets with the cop who pinned him down. This moment could have easily turned into a cheap resolution full of false sentimentality. Instead it goes another route, acknowledging that in the real world stubborn prejudices are not easy to just put away.
“Woke” is not a total success, but it still has the value of presenting a theme that could spark much discussion among viewers. There are no doubt many writers, filmmakers, musicians or indeed, cartoonists, feeling the streets begin to tremble outside, and wonder if they should speak out. One character tells Keef that minorities need to first play it safe, attain power and prominence, and then finally take a stand. “Woke” ponders if that time for that sort of thinking has already passed. Why keep waiting if history is leaving you behind?
“Woke” season one begins streaming Sept. 9 on Hulu.