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Interview: Kali Hawk on the Warmth and Positivity of ‘Black Jesus’

Interview: Kali Hawk on the Warmth and Positivity of 'Black Jesus'

Now a month after the premiere of Aaron McGruder’s new Adult
Swim series “Black Jesus,” it seems that audiences have settled from
the initial controversy surrounding the show. Despite initial outrage at Black Jesus’
appearance, language and exploits – including threats to get the show cancelled – the series has
blown away its competition in cable with over 2 million viewers.

Cast member Kali Hawk who plays Maggie, the woman in
the Black Jesus crew, recently spoke with Shadow And Act about the show and the
conversations that it’s inspired.

been controversy about the show since before it even aired. What kind of
feedback have you gotten, from fans as well as people around you?  

a lot of criticism from people who didn’t really know what to expect, just kind
of projecting onto the show what they thought it was going to be about. Luckily
since its debut episode there have been over 2 million viewers week after week. I’m glad that criticism has died down and with the fans, they
actually can see how “Black Jesus” is not a negative portrayal of
Jesus. He just  happens to live in
Compton and happens to be black, but his messages are the same; we’re just seeing
them delivered in a real-world urban space. Wow, what a concept. So it’s nice
to see people get on board with the positivity of the show now that they’ve
been able to see what it’s about.

JT: What was your
reaction when you read the first script?

KH: I liked it right away. I knew it was going to be one of
those shows that people would talk about, and there aren’t many opportunities
to be part of something that’s wildly popular and that also has a positive
message. I had also wanted to work with Aaron McGruder for a long time and
there were a few other people on the project that I really wanted to work with,
so it seems like a miracle of a project was handed to me.

JT: What did you make
of the religious themes in the show?

KH: I’ve got a lot of different religious ideas circling
through my family, but the positive thing is that I was raised with a lot of
openness and compassion. So the idea that you have to be strictly on one path
or another has never really been proposed to me at any age. I’m generally
interested in what people believe and what works for them, what gives them
hope, what inspires them, no matter what it is.

From what I know about the Bible, Jesus was not aiming to
make himself an icon or a celebrity. It was more about his message that he
wanted to exalt. So I didn’t really find myself concerned with how Jesus looked
on our show because being worried about those things seems contradictory to the
message of Jesus in the Christian faith. It was mostly about “love one

I saw the opportunity to be a part of something that gets people talking about Jesus, and in a way encourages
them to produce facts. Before the show aired, on Twitter there were tweets
proclaiming blasphemy and I would encourage people, “Okay, well cite the
scripture and let’s look at it.” Many of them couldn’t exactly find a
place in the Bible where the thing they were angry about was justified. I think
it’s important to have beliefs that are positive and that help you, but it’s
also important to investigate those beliefs so that when you’re confronted with
questions, you’re not scared or angered. You can be welcoming to the

JT: How’s it been working with Aaron McGruder?

KH: You never really know what Aaron is up to until you see
it. And I guess that explains why people had so many misconceptions about
“Black Jesus” before it aired, because he has established a brand of
social commentary that’s generally controversial. But there is always a lot of
heart at the center of whatever message he’s trying to get out.

So with the show we had a table read, and I assumed that
since all the characters are in Compton, that my character’s style and her
persona would be reflective of that experience. He just walked over to me
during the table read and goes, “You know, how about we just do it in your
normal voice?” And to me it seemed like such a jarring contrast with the
other guys and how they spoke, but now when I see the episodes coming on [I
see] what he was looking for. That contrast, that fish-out-of-water element for
my character Maggie. She wasn’t supposed to be like the other guys. She was
supposed to stand out and that’s where a lot of the comedy comes from. That was
one of those magical gems from Mr. McGruder that you would have never expected.
It’s been fun working with someone who has so many clever surprises.

JT: Tell me about working with the ensemble cast. What have been some of your favorite scenes to

KH: I really loved doing the “Facebook bitches”
scene where the three girls from Facebook are writing nasty things to my
character and she invites them to Compton assuming that they won’t be bold
enough to come, and then Maggie has to face them when they actually do come.
Jesus encourages her not to post those negative things and not to invite them
to Compton and not to get out of the car and fight them. It was enjoyable to film something
that was so real and everyone had a story about an Internet feud that went too far
while we were filming.

And I love the one that just aired, with Corey Holcomb’s
character Boonie. His ex Shalinka comes to visit and it’s crazy because she’s just
so angry. She’s got a lot of bitterness and she just tears through everybody in
the Black Jesus crew, Joe Pesci-style. On the one hand it’s funny because she
takes off her wig and gets into her classic fighting stance, but it also
strikes something very real – how hard it is dealing with “baby mama drama” and especially being the baby’s mama. In that episode you get to find out
that she has a lot of real feelings because she has to take care of those kids
mostly by herself. I think that issue being brought to light in an entertaining
way was really good for people to see, and I wonder what conversations that
episode inspired.

JT: The show seems a
lot like “Fat Albert and the Junkyard Gang,” with a lovable character
that counsels everyone through their problems.

KH: Right, I’ve seen it and I have heard that before.

JT: “Black
Jesus” has been called forward thinking, but it has a nostalgic quality about
it too. Did you feel that at all, and how do you think the show is going to
impact TV in the long-term?

KH: I definitely knew that “Black Jesus” would
have the chance to be revolutionary for television. That was one of the many
things that made me excited to be a part of it. And there have been a lot of
shows that people said were edgy and had positive messages at their core. The
first thing I think of is “All in the Family,” where Archie Bunker was
a curmudgeon and sometimes seemed openly racist. He was a crazy character, and to
watch a character like that transform and learn to see people as people, that
show was revolutionary in its time because of how real it was and how heartfelt
it turned out to be.

I think “Black Jesus” has a similar thing. People
are living exactly like the characters on the show and maybe looking at
themselves on the screen forces them to be a little more introspective, but it
also offers some solutions that they can consider, whereas in their real lives
they may not be offered any solutions. The great thing about television is that
most things get resolved by the end of the episode. So I think a lot of people
watch TV to see something of their real lives reflected on the screen, but also
they’re hoping for that happy ending.

JT: Can you talk
about any other projects you have coming up that audiences should look out for?

KH: There’s “The
Bounce Back”
with Shemar Moore. I’ve got Queen Latifah’s “November
with Macy Gray and Tatyana Ali, and I just did a film with Taryn
Manning called “A Light Beneath Their Feet,” and it deals with a
young girl whose mother has mental health issues. It’s a really warm and
wonderful story. So all of these will come out in 2015.

I think between “Black Jesus” and those three
movies, it definitely seems like in my work I’m confronting very real issues, but
still in an entertaining and lighthearted way. With “The Bounce Back”
[Shemar] plays this self-help guru that helps women figure out how to shed the
baggage of the past and be open to love, and he falls in love with this woman
who is a psychologist and basically denounces him as some sort of a charlatan.
And then to see these two people get together and help to heal each other in a
way that is really warm and funny, it’s a fun project.

Then also in “November Rule,” to work with Macy
Gray, I think people are going to love seeing her in the role that she plays in
this movie. And my character is crazy as always. So it’s nice to continue this
career of offbeat characters and I hope I get to do more. I hope we get to have
Season Two of “Black Jesus.” I think it will be really fun to see how
the Black Jesus crew evolves.

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