I was really excited when I found out the Hulu series Woke got picked up for a second season. Though it certainly touched on the major issue of police brutality, it truly shined in the moments that explored the tedious, uncomfortable, and at times maddening self-awareness that comes with being Black in public.
Based on the life and work of cartoonist Keith Knight, Woke opens on our hero Keef (Lamorne Morris) achieving national syndication with his comics strip Toast and Butter. As Keef posts fliers promoting his appearance at Golden Con (a fictional San Francisco comic convention), he’s assaulted by police. This incident forces Keef to reflect on how he’s perceived by his community, leaving him to question his responsibilities as a Black artist. Throughout the series, Keef confronts his relationship with white audiences, the Black arts community, and broader society. His deepest anxieties manifest constantly, in the form of cartoons only he can see.
The title Woke, though catchy, feels a bit misleading. Though this story drives home the idea of “the personal as political,” the title alludes to this either being an overtly political story or a story critical of the performative nature of contemporary political engagement.
With the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and so many others, and this summer’s cultural reckoning, a growing awareness of deeply rooted anti-Blackness seems to finally be catching on, though to varying degrees. (Every streaming service seems to now have a #Blacklivesmatters section or “Black Voices” playlist.) Woke stands out at this moment by highlighting the threats and challenges that Black people face on a daily basis, though these moments aren’t the primary focus. What Woke does exceptionally well is capture the navigation and negotiations that people of color must manage in white spaces. The viewer tags along with Keef as he re-examines his proximity to whiteness.
“You gotta be Blacker than me to present at this event,” a brown paper bag taunts Keef from the table of a check in desk at an Oakland art party, before challenging him to pronounce the name “Ta-Nehisi Coates.” Keef’s failure to do so frames his uncertainty as he attempts to find connection and validation in a Black art space. These are the moments that Woke is at its most honest and interesting, and often, it’s more pensive and introspective than trailers imply. The animation feels less like “wacky fun” and more like a PTSD-induced hallucination of uncertainty and self-doubt.
The greatest challenge Woke faces are the expectations it establishes in the first episode. The pilot functions as a high concept comedy, where each scene ends with a punchline. Here, Morris’ performance is light-fun and endearingly goofy.
In contrast, the rest of the series is less focused on punchlines and plot points and more concerned about developing Keef’s world and inner workings. Instead of laughing at his hijinks, we are forced to sit in on upsetting moments of him stumbling through a world that demands he “be Black” even as it critiques or devalues him for his Blackness. The punchlines are often left to Keef’s roommates, Clovis (T. Murph) and Gunther (Blake Anderson), characters who serve an almost singular function of reminding the viewer that Woke is really just trying to have fun, often undercutting generative moments of emotional tension.
At times it feels as though media has placed too much weight on universality and objectivity. The old, “If a 73 year old white man in LA can relate to a that story about a 6 year old Black girl in New Orleans they must be doing something right,” as if distance from a subject allows viewers to see it more clearly. I am a Black comic artist who has lived in the Bay. I’ve had five or six Berkeley PD officers point guns at me because of “mistaken identity.” Though it’s rare, every once in a while a story comes along that rings true to my life experience. There is value in that. So when I hit play on episode one and saw “Inspired by one experience… shared by many” onscreen, I knew this story was speaking directly to me. And if a story can make a person feel that way, it must be doing something right.
Woke is currently streaming on Hulu.