Everyone knows the word “woke.” It has quite a negative connotation now as a blanket term for people when they become aware of social injustice. For many people, especially white people, this is an eye-opening moment. Usually because they’ve chosen to remain ignorant to systemic oppression. So when they finally do, it turns them into a bit of a zealot. Though we now mostly use it for white people, it can happen to Black folks too. On Hulu’s new show, Woke, we see how a singular experience transforms a Black man’s life.
Created by artist Keith Knight, Woke is a fictionalized version of his life, starring Lamore Morris (of New Girl fame) as Knight. Keef is the artist of a comic strip, “Toast and Butter,” which is on the fast track to national syndication. When a Black reporter tells him she admires the political undertones of the comic, Keef says that it’s merely about breakfast food. Nothing less, nothing more. “Why is it that us people of color are always having to stand for something or say something in our work?” he asks her.
But as he’s stapling up fliers for a convention appearance, Keef is suddenly surrounded by a group of cops, guns drawn. Within seconds, he’s face down on the ground with a cop’s knee in his back. His white friend Gunther intervenes, and just as quickly as it began, Keef is back on his feet. He claims to be okay, carrying on with his day, but it’s obvious he’s shaken. How could he not be?
Nothing about Keef’s experience is new or particularly shocking. But that’s kind of the point. Black men, especially those in major cities (the show takes place in San Francisco) experience racial profiling daily. They can “fit the description” because the cops have told themselves that they do, even if they don’t. Once, my nephew was held up by a group of white cops in Lower Manhattan because he allegedly fit the description of a thief they were looking for. They held him for over an hour, never giving him any additional explanation upon his release. To some, it may feel extreme, but for Black Americans, it’s just day to day life.
As he moves through the rest of his day, including a meeting with the team about his Con appearance, you can see something in him has changed. The experience with the police triggers something in him. It’s a new awareness of how he moves through the world as a Black man, but also how non-Black people perceive him. During a conversation with his PR team, they tell him that they don’t even see him as Black. “We don’t see color,” they say as they tell him his crossover appeal is incredibly high. And while Keef takes issue with their comment, a later conversation with his Black friend Clovis sheds some light on why he’s so shaken by the whole experience: he never thought it could happen to him.
Keef’s confession really struck a chord with me. Much like Keef, I felt that I didn’t need to be political or take any kind of stand on racial injustice. But then Eric Garner was killed a few blocks away from my home. That was my “woke” moment — when the ills of racial injustice and police brutality became personal. And it wasn’t that I wasn’t aware of them; I thought I was impervious to that reality. But when it’s so close to home, it’s impossible for it not to have a profound impact. After that, the way I see the world and the way I move through the world has changed. I no longer believe that there is a safe way to be Black in America, and I don’t pretend that these injustices aren’t very real.
The word “woke” is a bit of a joke now. People use it as a way to mock someone who is just catching up with the world. And I can see why. I know I’ve done it plenty of times in the past. Because there is a certain indignation that comes with this realization, especially for non-Black people. More specifically, white people. But that’s what makes the show brilliant. It’s easy to use the word and attach it to a white main character — because many people think that white people are the ones just catching up. But there are Black people who, like Keef and myself, needed an inciting incident to push them into action. Keef’s sudden “wokeness” causes him to lose his syndication, his comic strip, and his girlfriend in one fell swoop.
“I love addressing complex issues with metaphor and with humor, trying to distill it down in simple ways so people can understand it in a way that they may not have understood it before,” Keith Knight explained in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.
Woke is really about Keef’s journey to understanding how he as a Black man and an artist fit into the conversation of systemic oppression, racial injustice and activism. Many of Keef’s realizations come from conversations with animated inanimate objects. Outside of a gentrified barber shop, the trash can eggs him on to take action for justice. His drawing marker pushes him to use his art to mean something. Most of the show is him trying to figure out what exactly that looks like. He creates a project, “Rent a Black Person,” and while it’s a scathing social commentary, it goes awry in ways he didn’t expect. He does eventually do what he avoided in the beginning — he draws his police encounter for his comic. This also brings on repercussions he didn’t really expect.
In the interview with the Los Angeles Times, Knight says that he doesn’t see Woke as a “thing that’s gonna change anything.” And while watching it, you never get that feeling that it’s trying to. What it does is humorously examine what it means to be Black in America. And, what it means to use your art to make a statement. You’re not going to learn something new, but you may view the Black experience in a new way.
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