"Do y’all have any fucking faith, brah?" Those words coming from Jesus? You can’t get more post-modern than that.
Aaron McGruder’s new live-action comedy for Adult Swim, "Black Jesus," is a modern-day religious farce bathed in the best kind of sin. Set in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton, "Black Jesus" is, according to Adult Swim’s marketing for the show, about "the biggest comeback in history." Indeed, the focus of the series is the Son of God himself: Jesus Christ.
Played by newcomer Gerald "Slink" Johnson, Jesus lives on the streets of Compton, likes to spread goodwill throughout the community and most of all, loves to smoke dope with his friends. When Jesus’ friends begin to complain about the cost of dope — because, as we learn at the beginning of the first episode, Jesus smokes most of it — the Son of God suggests they build a community garden where they can cut out the middleman and have the best of both worlds. In other words, they can grow their own food and their own dope. Who knew Jesus was, or perhaps in this case is, at his core, a utilitarian?
While the majority of the community embraces Jesus’ leadership, particularly his friends who genuinely believe his words carry weight; one resident of the neighborhood, a man named Vic, who is played by "Chapelle’s Show" alumnus Charles Q. Murphy, remains suspicious of Jesus, refusing to buy into what he describes as a fantasy identity dreamed up by a crazy homeless man.
Though the first two episodes thrive on action, the main conflict of the series, even at such an early stage, appears to already transcend semantics, and instead, touches on much larger community-based political and cultural concerns. The community garden that Jesus wants to build operates not only as a plot device, but also, in a way, seems to function as an ideological response to the lack of access to healthy foods in low-income communities such as Compton. Additionally, the immaculate interiors of Vic and Ms. Tudi’s respective homes — Ms. Tudi being the mother of one of Jesus’ friends — erodes the notion that "refinement" has one particular definition and can only exist as a result of gentrification.
In a piece published on Shadow and Act earlier this week, entitled "The Gentrification of Black Film," filmmaker and culture critic Tanya Steele applies the concept to the production of films about black culture, specifically citing the upcoming James Brown biopic, "Get On Up," directed by Tate Taylor, a white male.
"Hollywood gentrification is about making everything look, taste, sound and feel the same," she writes at the end of her piece. "My Brooklyn neighborhood, once lovely and unique because of all of the differing personalities and cultures, is soon becoming something that I’ve seen before. It has less funk. There are bicycle racks, and couples with strollers, hipsters jogging in beards and sunglasses. It’s going from Brown to White right before my eyes."
At the same time, however, Steele seems to identify the inherent paradox of gentrification that seems to preoccupy McGruder to a certain extent in "Black Jesus." "There is always some good in that [gentrification]," she finishes. "More resources pour in, better products but, the soul, the spirit of the neighborhood is gone. My neighborhood has been refined."
The soul and the spirit that Steele describes at the end of her piece emerge from the use of religion as a conflict-resolution tool at various points throughout an episode; the best example being the confrontation between Mexican gangsters and Jesus and his friends during the second episode. After throwing a rock at one of the gangsters in order to get them to stop shooting, Jesus abides by his conviction to spread good-will and magically heals the gangster’s injured eye.
So to answer Jesus’ question about whether there’s any "f*cking faith." Well brah, there might be just a bit more thanks to you.
"Black Jesus" premieres tonight at 11pm on Adult Swim.