(Editor’s Note: If you don’t know the history behind the term “modest proposal,” you won’t understand unless you read the whole thing.)
Well, last night happened and, as far as I can tell, the four horsemen of the apocalypse have yet to appear.
Which world-shattering event am I referring to? A new development in the Israel-Palestine conflict? A new executive order signed by President Obama? Another Mark Driscoll scandal? No, no… I’m talking about something important.
Last night was the premiere of the new Aaron McGruder comedy, “Black Jesus.” For the uninitiated, here’s a trailer:
Despite the multitude of protests and demonstrations from Christian and conservative groups, the show did not trigger the collapse of American society. I don’t have cable so I couldn’t watch it live, but I found a couple of underground websites streaming the first episode.
It was a brilliant example of comedy, and an amazing piece of art.
Over the course of those twenty minutes, I found myself enthralled by the gripping tale of a young urban Christ figure surrounded by his hood disciples, trying to find their way in postmodern society. I laughed, but I was also moved. Boycott the show? No. I think people need to watch the show — several times, in fact, in order to get the full weight of it.
As a matter of fact, I would go as far as to say that black people need to watch “Black Jesus,” not just at home where they can laugh in isolation, but grouped together in communities. That’s right, I’ll say it — black people need to watch “Black Jesus” at church.
And really, why stop there? White people should watch it, too. In the process, they could learn a lot about Jesus. And a lot about black people!
Except for this guy, that is. He knows everything about black people that there is to know (just ask noted black politcal analyst Toure):
Okay, okay. Relax, I was joking.
I couldn’t keep that up for more than a few paragraphs. If you didn’t follow the link in the intro, the term “modest proposal” is shorthand for a ridiculous suggestion made for satirical purposes. And frankly, if you watched that ridiculous “rap” video and couldn’t tell I was kidding, then you’ve got bigger problems than this article can solve.
See, I did my best to exaggerate that position to a ridiculous extent, in order to illustrate how ridiculous the position is. That’s what satire is.
No, I don’t think “Black Jesus” was great art, nor do I think it was all that funny. I’m not gonna lie, I did laugh a few times, but mostly I just kinda sat there, wondering where it was gonna go. Like the last big pop culture release featuring Gerald “Slink” Johnson, it was kind of a mixed bag. It was an obvious attempt to marry So-Cal “hood” culture with black church culture, but ramped up to ridiculous levels.
Which, as a satire, is what “Black Jesus” aims to do. Aaron McGruder’s track record speaks for itself — his work is undergirded in the tradition of satire. Whether it’s always successful, or funny, or effective, or out-of-bounds… all those questions can and should be up for debate. But you can’t debate it unless you know what it is. To try and do otherwise is as ridiculous as boycotting mixed martial arts because it’s too violent. It’s an object lesson from Advanced Studies In Missing-The-Point.
And that’s what irritated me so much about all of the protests about the show from religious leaders and whatnot. Of course, it was going to offend people. On its face, it’s as patently offensive and ridiculous as some of the worst things ever to come out of black culture. (Paging Soul Plane! Soul Plane, you’re wanted in Concourse A.)
However, satire exists not only to entertain, but to make a point. The challenge is how to entertain well enough to keep people interested, while making your point clear enough to be heard and understood. This is always the challenge of a satirist, and sometimes it can be a hard balance to manage. This is one of the reasons why Dave Chappelle stopped doing his Comedy Central show, because he felt like people were laughing in the wrong ways, for the wrong reasons, and missing the point.
So, you might be asking, what is the point Aaron McGruder is trying to make with “Black Jesus”? After one episode, I’m not entirely sure. But I offer this observation by way of hypothesis:
Black Jesus seems to be less about Jesus than it is about the black church.
Specifically, my theory is that McGruder is taking aim at the ridiculous ways that so many African-Americans have a cultural connection to the church experience without much historical, practical or theological understanding of who Jesus was or what He was about.
This is would be a difficult balance for anyone to pull off, but I think it’s particularly difficult for McGruder, because to the best of my knowledge, he is not a Christian. He seems to know very little of the black church beyond what can be ascertained from stereotypes and tropes.
So where The Boondocks was hilarious because of his razor-sharp insights into the dichotomy of pro-black consciousness (embodied by protagonist Huey), and gangsta thug culture (embodied by little brother Riley), and the various other characters that inhabited his richly rendered world, “Black Jesus” seems to have very few arrows in its quiver other than the basic novelty of hey, look at that… Jesus is smoking weed, cussin’ and drinking beer.
Which isn’t anymore groundbreaking or clever than the old white couple saying “Jesus Is My Nigga.”
I also think that the third-rail premise is being done no favors by being shot as live action. Part of what made “The Boondocks” palatable was the fact that it was animated. The ridiculous excesses of its characters, the over-the-top fight scenes, the grotesque facial expressions… like “The Simpsons,” “Family Guy” and countless others have proven, it’s a little easier to take those things in stride when they’re animated. Even hitmakers like Matt Parker and Trey Stone (“South Park”) and Mike Judge (“Beavis and Butthead,” “King of the Hill”) struggled to make the transition from animated to live action. Their films (“BASEketball” and “Idiocracy,” respectively) reached cult classic status, but never gained the level of popularity as their TV shows.
So whether Aaron McGruder is talented enough to make the same jump, well that question is what compelled me to watch in the first place. And what he accomplished with The Boondocks, not only the animated series, but with the comic strip that preceded it, has earned him enough goodwill for me to watch a few more episodes before condemning it to eternal cancellation. Whether that goodwill gets rewarded or squandered, remains to be seen.
In the meantime, if you really would like an example of McGruder’s work that you can watch in church, here’s one of my favorite clips. It’s good for a discussion surrounding the real meaning of Christmas: