When I first heard that "The Boondocks" creator Aaron McGruder was creating and writing a series entitled “Black Jesus,” I thought I knew exactly what to expect. Having followed "The Boondocks" so closely, even until its bitter fourth season end, I thought we’d be gearing up for more blunt uncompromising satire with the addition of sharp pokes at contemporary Christianity. As the first episode started and Jesus Christ, played with jovial energy by Slink Johnson, offered a homeless man good will and compassion, instead of that day’s lottery numbers, I was pleasantly surprised.
“Black Jesus” is a good-hearted sitcom without the sanitizer – “Sanford and Son” with the edges left in tact and still just as funny.
Mind you, "Black Jesus" is a collaboration between McGruder and "Trailer Park Boys" creator Mike Clattenburg, and that show’s looser structural sensibilities gel well with a modern day Jesus story.
The series starts off like many Adult Swim shows do, with what seems to be a one-joke premise (what if Jesus was Black and homeless in Compton?) and builds from there. Jesus lives out of his van, smokes weed and gets in to and out of trouble with a group of modern day disciples, and deals with the schemes of neighborhood grumps, like landlord Vic (Charlie Murphy), and homeless moocher Floyd (John Witherspoon).
The show doesn’t play cute with whether or not Black Jesus is the real deal, either. Johnson’s Jesus turns water into grape cognac, cures wounds, and summons telephone alibis out of thin air, over the course of the first three episodes.
The main recurring arc of the series at the moment has Jesus and his posse attempting to start a community garden, but they run into setback after setback, as Jesus’ tendency toward treating everyone with respect, leaves the group without supplies or funds.
It was at this point where the show pulled back the curtain as to what its central joke is; beyond the “old-fashioned supernatural sitcom, but with Jesus” set-up, McGruder isn’t so much attacking the religion, as he is commenting on how Jesus’ overall messages of peace, love, and good will toward all people, are falling on deaf ears in contemporary society. Jesus is the Lamont Sanford in a pessimistic and self-centered society. He’s caught in a bind between his friend’s drug-lord mother and a Mexican gang who own the space he wants to garden in – but all he wants to do is garden for the community’s betterment.
That’s the main question at hand, and it’s a good one to be asking; even though religion still serves as motivation and inspiration to millions of Americans, is it possible that we misinterpret Jesus’ overall message? If he were to show up, would he be treated as a savant or just another bum, regardless of said message? Even with a lighter tone than its spiritual cousin “The Boondocks,” McGruder can’t seem to keep the sociological questions at bay.
While “Black Jesus” may seem to be pretty small scale at the moment, it could easily build to something bigger; was Jesus sent down to Earth for a particular reason? Normally, Jesus’ presence on Earth is one of the first signs of The Apocalypse. Is the loose narrative setting us up for a kick to the guts later in the season? Only time will tell.
Whatever the answer to these questions may be, McGruder and the cast have a ball finding out. As mentioned before, Johnson’s Jesus is a revelation as the moocher with a heart of gold, and Charlie Murphy and John Witherspoon make for a great dastardly duo. For a show so lackadaisical in structure, its characters are so well-developed, its humor and voice so confident, its controversial subject matter so nonchalant, that I’m astonished it exists, even on a network as welcoming as Adult Swim.
It may not be funny in the same immediate way “The Boondocks” was, and that I still enjoy, but the laughs stick in the back of my throat all the same.
McGruder is, hands down, one of America’s boldest pop satirists, and he’s showing that his particular voice can sound off in a number of different ways. I’m really glad that Adult Swim is taking yet another risk, because “Black Jesus” is just another chapter in the gospel.