Cartoonist Keith Knight Draws From Real-Life Wake-Up Call For 'Woke'

Sep 9, 2020
Originally published on September 9, 2020 6:45 am
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

"Woke" is a new comedy on Hulu about a Black cartoonist who's about to launch a new apolitical comic when he's harassed by the San Francisco Police. This show about his journey from complacency to activism is out today, and here's NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans with a review.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: As "Woke" begins, cartoonist Keef Knight - spelled K-E-E-F - is on the verge of the biggest success of his career. His cartoon "Toast And Butter" is so popular fans on the bus in San Francisco recognize him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WOKE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I love "Toast And Butter."

LAMORNE MORRIS: (As Keef Knight) Oh, cool, man. Me, too. I make it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) So you're Keef Knight?

MORRIS: (As Keef Knight) I am, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Oh, that's funny. I didn't think you'd be - tall.

MORRIS: (As Keef Knight) Happens all the time.

DEGGANS: And he's about to finalize a national syndication deal put together by a powerful agency to reach a mainstream audience. But there's a problem with the promotional materials.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WOKE")

MORRIS: (As Keef Knight) Did you guys lighten my photo? I look like Sammy Sosa. Am I too Black for my own comic strip?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) No (laughter), trust me. No one's ever going to accuse you of being too Black, OK?

MORRIS: (As Keef Knight) I'm sorry. What?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What?

MORRIS: (As Keef Knight) Hmm?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) It's what we like about you. Your crossover index is in the 95th percentile. Here at BNH (ph), we champion the data. We don't see color.

DEGGANS: As you can hear, Keef Knight - played with an authentic, charismatic comic timing by Lamorne Morris - has a well-practiced ability to shrug off microaggressions. He explains his attitude in a conversation with a different fan, played by Sasheer Zamata.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WOKE")

MORRIS: (As Keef Knight) Yeah, but I'm not controversial.

SASHEER ZAMATA: (As Ayana) You're a Black cartoonist. You're controversial just by existing.

MORRIS: (As Keef Knight) Why is it that us people of color are always having to stand for something? I'm just a cartoonist.

ZAMATA: (As Ayana) Because the world's a racist place.

MORRIS: (As Keef Knight) And that's why I keep it light.

DEGGANS: But when San Francisco cops mistake him for a mugger, draw guns on him and handcuff him...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WOKE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) We have the suspect in question, 6-foot-tall Black male.

(CROSSTALK)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) What's in the bag?

MORRIS: (As Keef Knight) Just a stapler.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) He's got a weapon.

MORRIS: (As Keef Knight) No, no, no.

DEGGANS: The trauma leads him to see inanimate objects as animated living things encouraging him to be, well, woke.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WOKE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) That's right. I'm a talking trash can. And that ain't even close to normal, but you ain't even close to normal, not anymore.

MORRIS: (As Keef Knight) Aw, this is - come on, Keef. Keef, this is all wrong.

DEGGANS: This is how "Woke" adds new layers of funny to a situation that easily could have been predictable and pedantic, especially when comics like Cedric the Entertainer and Nicole Byer are voicing the objects. This is a pitch-perfect comedy released at just the right time, encouraging us to laugh at all of the absurdities surrounding today's racial and social politics, while also reminding us of why staying woke is ultimately so important. As Keef becomes more aware of the racial politics around him, his well-crafted life starts to fall apart, as his roommate Clovis explains.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WOKE")

T MURPH: (As Clovis) You know what rhymes with woke, right?

MORRIS: (As Keef Knight) Coke?

T MURPH: (As Clovis) Broke. Broke rhymes with woke.

DEGGANS: It's an added treat that this fun, sharp-eyed satire stars Morris and Zamata, two Black performers I always felt were overlooked on their previous gigs, Morris on "New Girl" and Zamata on "Saturday Night Live." Here they get to be funny and authentic at the center of the action, no more best friend roles or bit parts at the edge of a sketch focused on white characters.

"Woke" is inspired by Keith Knight, an award-winning cartoonist whose work often deals with race and social issues and who says he was racially profiled by cops while living in San Francisco 20 years ago. If anything, "Woke" the TV series gains its power from how little has changed since that incident, except for the power Black creators like Knight now have to tell their stories on their own wonderfully creative terms.

I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK MILK'S "PLAY THE KEYS (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.