After working on The Boondocks for 18 years, Aaron McGruder expressed his overarching modus operandi in the letter that announced his departure from season four of the animated series. “It was important to offend but equally important to offend for the right reasons,” he said. It’s a solid defense, but is it worth it sometimes? Is pressing discourse important enough to base an entire series around a loaded character like Jesus – an already shaky concept on paper.
While (mostly White) religious conservatives condemn Black Jesus, McGruder fans brought their faith from The Boondocks’ lackluster fourth season over to the potential of this project. But I think Black Jesus offers a completely different challenge from his best-known work. The Boondocks came with its own mythology with characters owning their own, well-defined belief systems: Huey, an unwavering militant; Riley, an energetic miscreant with a taste for closeted gangster rappers; and Granddad, a staunch relic of old-school Blackness. Our Lord and Savior comes with his own mythology, complications and relationship with the Black idealism McGruder constantly seeks to subvert. So here’s the dilemma: How can he flip what’s been Written into something sharp enough to not rely on farce or —ever worst — lying on the premise as a gimmick?
"Smokin', Drinkin', and Chillin',” Black Jesus’ pilot, offers glimpses of both possibilities, but thankfully, it’s more of the better case scenario than the worst. Unfortunately, the worst concerns a predictability that follows the plot and making Gerald “Slink” Johnson’s (Grand Theft Auto V) Jesus relatable enough to make Lamar Davis proud. Essentially, the gang — depicted as folks getting by in an urban ecosystem rather than Compton caricatures — convince Black Jesus to take part in a drug deal. The deal goes wrong when some thieves try to jack them, only to be revealed as White kids with fake guns. Black Jesus gets caught up in the aftermath and predictably miracle-weasels his way out of legal consequences. Everybody laughs at the end in sitcom fashion. That’s admittedly a rudimentary explanation, but that’s what goes on along with some obligatory one-liners reminding you he is the Son of God (“You do realize I died for yo’ sins, right,” the shoutout to his pops and “Are ya’ll familiar with the Wrath of God!”). Jesus in a drug deal gone wrong. That’s it.
McGruder can afford to play it safe with the plot though — this is just the first episode. “Smokin', Drinkin', and Chillin'” shows signs of potential success through the cast and a mellifluously flowing script. The characters aren’t too developed, but they do come off as likeable enough to carry the show. Fish (Andra Fuller) comes off as a reasonable dude whose outbursts at the surface-level absurdity provide some laughs, like when he exclaims, “That’s a Goddamn miracle in reverse, man,” when Black Jesus decides to magically give the fraud robbers some money. Boonie (Corey Holcomb) plays the dude-around-the-way who can’t get his life straight. Typical, but he gets a pass for delivering the best throwaway line: “My pitbull getting ready to have puppies. I wasn’t there for when my kids was born, but Imma be there for my b*tch!” Also, kudos to Jason (Antwon Tanner) for showing exactly what’s wrong with this generation of wannabe goons: “I don’t know these n*ggas, man. But they’re highly recommended on Instagram.”
But Black Jesus’ brightest moments happen around two orbiting characters: Lloyd the homeless man (John Witherspoon, The Boondocks’ Granddad) and Vic (Charlie Murphy). Lloyd comes in the show’s first scene asking Black Jesus to gift him the numbers to the Lotto — ‘cause he’s been good. Black Jesus being Black Jesus only offers kindness and compassion, leading to his “I still love your b*tchass — by default fool!” after an argument. Funny enough, but there’s an importance to putting this scene for a series accused of pointing vitriol at Christianity. Religion is really used as a vehicle for McGruder’s rhetoric. The link between The Boondocks and Black Jesus is the concept of Black self-determinism over belief. Part of the Black experience is the perpetual fight against The Struggle. What’s possibly lying underneath the verbal barbs between the two is how ironically Christ is mentioned around the challenge of getting by. I don’t personally know how it is in Compton, but in Brooklyn, there’s a saying that the more churches you see on a block, the rougher the neighborhood you’re in. In other words, high-risk neighborhoods like Brownsville and East New York are dripping in Holy Water. Like a corner church, the presence of Black Jesus doesn’t change the fact that Lloyd is a Black man at the bottom of the economy.
Vic’s single scene appearance further hammers in this belief vs. reality concept. Black Jesus refuses to give a miracle-made bottle of grape wine (yes, grape) to the homies because their minds aren’t ready and hearts aren’t open, but he’s also subjected to Vic’s cruelty when he ruins the barbecue with a fire hose and jackassery. He throws the ribs from the grill to the floor before the real kicker comes: “The homies ain’t gon’ eat. The homies don’t work. You see, ants work hard all day long. Those is black ants. They like chicken, watermelon, shrimp and ribs.” Those ants may not have compassion, but they do represent the ideal Black male — a self-made one doing right by the American Dream. A literally blue collared Vic stands toward the left, Black Jesus stands on the right alongside the pro-Jesus Jason, and Fish and Boonie — who’ve taken licks from faith and reality in the episode — sit in the center. Sometimes the facetiousness is at surface level.
So perhaps the key to the series is using the surrealism instead of poking at it. While it wasn’t the perfect episode, “Smokin', Drinkin', and Chillin'” provides a peek at the possibilities of Black Jesus moving beyond supposed blasphemy to possibly spur conversation surrounding religion and its distance from the urban community’s need to pick itself by the bootstraps and rise up. The tidiness of the ending deserves some flack, but in a way, it works. Black Jesus embraces the gang, who’s still broke after the busted drug deal. Jesus saves. Maybe.