Down the streets of Compton he strides, arms raised to heaven in exultation. A broad smile creases his face. Even for Los Angeles he is dressed in a unique fashion: a brown robe, sandals and a crown of thorns. That’s right, Jesus has come to the ‘hood.
This is the hero of the Adult Swim TV series “Black Jesus.” Aaron McGruder of “The Boondocks” comic fame and director Mike Clattenburg have put their own highly original spin on the question that all Christians have wondered at some point: what if Jesus came back today? Their answer, and the environment in which he labors, allows the sacred and the profane to come together in a thought-provoking yet hilarious way.
In Hollywood everyone wants high-concept stories. That term means a plot that is easy to summarize and easy to visualize. You don’t get any more high concept than this: Jesus comes back as a black man in Compton, noted for a heavy gang presence, rappers, hip-hop singers and copious amounts of drugs. Rather than the self-sacrificing Savior we know from the Bible, this Jesus (played by Gerald “Slink” Johnson) is cool. He uses his abilities to make wine from water and to multiply loaves and fishes to plan some killer block parties. Most importantly, he likes his pot. Followed by a motley group of pseudo-disciples who at times look more like a mini-gang, he works hard to save souls with that ever-present smile.
As much as edgy dramas like “Breaking Bad” or “Game of Thrones,” this series is one that could only exist in the gritty world of cable. If reading about the series makes your mouth drop open in shock and surprise it’s nothing compared to actually watching it. After six episodes, the plotlines have ranged from creating an urban garden to grow high-quality marijuana to stealing expensive horse manure from a nearby stable for that garden to holding a yard sale to help one of the “disciples” get caught up on back child support, McGruder and Clattenburg miss no opportunity for shock value.
In the current television landscape, there’s nothing particularly noteworthy about being shocked anymore. If that was all the show had to offer it would be a one-trick pony that would quickly become tiresome. This pitfall is avoided by the underlying attempt to understand salvation in a 21st-century world. There is no theology or heavy messages to “Black Jesus.” Rather, there is a sort of belief that (much as with the Biblical Savior) there is only so much that even one with his powers can do in a world of greedy, craven and sad people.
That the show can hold on to this concept while remaining constantly funny is a tribute not only to the writing but the cast as well. Largely consisting of unknowns, they are a great ensemble who get the fact that comedy works best when you don’t wait for your laughs or applause after every punchline. Johnson (who really needs to work on his IMDb page – it’s way too skimpy) conveys a winning sense of his own righteousness and the essential goodness of people with ease. His chief antagonist is Vic (Charles Murphy), the landlord of the building where he squats. As played by Murphy, Eddie’s big brother, he manages to be sneaky and yet not detestable, a trick little seen since the days of Danny DeVito on “Taxi.” Another noteworthy cast member is veteran actor-comedian John Witherspoon, whose Lloyd, a homeless man on the make, steals every scene he’s in. The posse of disciples include unknown but solid performers who have taken this opportunity to showcase their skills at sketch comedy in excellent fashion.
The only complaint with so many of the excellent cable series of the past few years is that they are by and large stark, bleak dramas. While there’s nothing wrong with that it’s nice to balance them with comedies that actually manage to be funny in fresh and original ways (networks, are you listening?). “Black Jesus” creates consistent laughs while providing food for thought for any discerning person of faith. This achievement makes it worth checking out.
– Louis Burklow (aka, Hollywood Country Boy), Staff Writer, Phoenix Genesis
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