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Is Adult Swim's Black Jesus the Savior We Need?

Bob Chipman | 18 Aug 2014 12:13
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Hatched by Boondocks troublemaker Aaron McGruder and featuring Gerald "Slink" Johnson (Lamar from Grand Theft Auto V) in the title role, Black Jesus is yet another Adult Swim offering (unrelated to this memorable bit from AS mainstay Family Guy) that feels like a satire whose point of reference doesn't actually exist but can be imagined to have existed. Specifically, "The story of Jesus, but with young black characters in a present-day ghetto instead of Roman-occupied Judea" sounds so much like the premise of some insufferably self-satisfied film school thesis that goes on to become an indie-circuit festival darling that it's hard to believe it doesn't actually exist... and Black Jesus plays out as though McGruder and company sat down and said "Hey, remember that super-pretentious movie about a black Jesus? Let's take the piss out of that by redoing it as one of those corny 'One Magic Person In An Otherwise Normal World' sitcoms!"

Except that American sitcoms seldom venture into communities like Compton -- save for maybe a Very Special Episode where a car breaks down and white teenagers learn a lesson about not judging an ebook by its cover .gif. White Hollywood in general prefers to glance at the ghetto only when the story serves the purpose of "There, but for the grace of God, go I" moralism -- unable to even consider that the residents thereof can exist as anything but avatars for abject misery. That was the impetus behind the first Friday movie and, I think, the secret to its enduring popularity: A deliberate counterweight to the depressing melodramas about "hood life" that were all the rage at the time. A movie with the quiet audacity to suggest that the everyday lives of black folks in the American inner city also include joy, laughter and comic absurdity.

In other words, Black Jesus would be, by definition, an exceptional series even without its central gimmick. An authentic-feeling "day in the life" situation-comedy about a group of friends making the most of it in Compton? Yes, please, let's run that up the flagpole and see if it flies. That the nominal leader of said group happens to be a walking lightning-rod for controversy -- a boisterous, jovial black guy who dresses like and purports to be Jesus Christ -- would almost feel like tone-derailing overkill if the whole product weren't so self-assured and confident. Like Black Jesus himself, it's a series that looks ridiculous but makes keeping a straight face seem so effortless it's almost hard not to buy in.

Just so we're clear: The show (only two episodes old, granted) doesn't appear to be playing it "cute" with its premise. Johnson's Jesus is the real deal -- Jesus Christ, living in a van in Compton and hanging out with a new group of disciples getting into mischief, with an aesthetic conceit that everyone in the neighborhood is aware and accepts that this is Jesus... they just don't think it's that big of a deal. He performs minor miracles (turning bottled water into cognac, causing an alibi to materialize in a police case file) but mostly he just goes about preaching a philosophy of love and kindness and attempting to affect small-scale good works while still getting into (and out of) trouble with his friends.

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