The new Hulu series “Woke” looks like a response to recent news — George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. But it was conceived and written before any of them were shot and killed.
Which, weirdly enough, speaks to how timely and timeless the series is. (All eight episodes start streaming Wednesday.)
Lamorne Morris (“New Girl”) stars as Keef Knight, a San Francisco cartoonist who’s on the verge of his big break. His strip is about to hit syndication, and life is great.
That is, until he’s mistaken for a mugging suspect because he fits the description — he’s 6 feet tall and Black. Keef is grabbed, roughed up, thrown to the ground and handcuffed as cops point guns at him.
The cops realize they’ve got the wrong guy and move off, never apologizing for or even acknowledging what they’ve done. And leaving Keef with a serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder.
How serious? Well, inanimate objects start talking to him. Bottles of malt liquor, pens and garbage cans all come to life, debating social issues.
All this is a major shock to Keef, who’s never really addressed issues of race. He’s made a name for himself drawing an amusing but inoffensive comic strip, resisting suggestions that he tackle tough issues.
“Why is it that as people of color, we’re always having to stand for something or, you know, say something in our work?” he says. “I’m just a cartoonist.”
“Woke” is semi-autobiographical, loosely based on the experiences of real-life cartoonist Keith Knight (“The K Chronicles,” “The Knight Life,” “(th)ink”). Unlike Keef, Knight has long addressed issues of race and police violence in his strips; just like Keef, Knight “had an incident with police that sort of sent me on a bit of a journey.”
“I had been doing comics about police brutality and stuff,” he said, “but I think once it happens to you, it’s a whole different [story], and it’s very intense. And it just made me double- and triple-down the work that I was doing.”
He teamed up with Marshall Todd (“Barbershop”) to create “Woke,” and developed it with director/executive producer Mo Marable (“Brockmire”) and showrunner Jay Dyer (“Californication”). And what they do amazingly well is deal with heavy issues in a surprisingly light, even goofy, way.
Like when Keef and his friend find a white woman’s wallet and debate whether they should turn it in, fearing they’ll be blamed for the crime. Or when Keef notices that the non-Black executives syndicating his comic strip have lightened his skin tone considerably in promotional materials, despite insisting that they “don’t see color.”
And it’s funny. “We make you laugh and then when you’re not looking, we punch you in the face with something hardcore,” Knight said with a laugh.
“Woke” preaches, but it somehow doesn’t feel like it is. It’s more accurate to say that it’s illustrating Black lives by focusing on one Black life.
“Our show isn’t out to change the world,” Knight said. “We want to make you laugh, we want to make you think, and we want to make you do something, and speak up.”
Which actually would change the world. Because, right now, “Woke” feels up-to-the-minute, even though it isn’t.
“The story is evergreen, right?” Marable said. “What’s going on in society — what happened to George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor — [has] been going on longer than I’ve been alive, longer than my parents have been alive. … This story’s been told over and over and over. And, hopefully, we’ll put a modern spin on it that people will, hopefully, learn something from.”