In John 20:29, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” This was an issue with Doubting Thomas; it is not the problem that Black Jesus (premiering Thursday, Aug. 7) has. Like many shows with controversial concepts, the Adult Swim sitcom from Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder has no lack of detractors who have not yet seen it, yet still believe it is blasphemy.
Granted, Adult Swim has already given them fodder, in the form of ads and trailers. And the bullet-point highlights of the first two episodes probably won’t do much to quiet the outcry among Christian groups who argue that it mocks their savior and their faith. The show puts the Son of God in modern-day Compton, where he curses, hangs out with drug dealers, changes bottled water into cognac, and smokes blunts.
Black Jesus is not the first comedy to reimagine Jesus Christ for laughs: Monty Python’s Life of Brian did that, and so did Saturday Night Live last year with its “Djesus Uncrossed” sketch. It’s not the first fiction to imagine Jesus returning: South Park did that from the beginning. (So did Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” in The Brothers Karamazov, albeit with fewer jokes.) It’s not even the first TV show with a “Black Jesus”: Family Guy got there years ago. (Even a pot-smoking Jesus has already been introduced, weirdly, by a Seattle restaurant ad last spring.)
Offense is subjective–I can’t tell someone whether to feel disrespected by Black Jesus, and as a nonbeliever I’d be a hypocrite to try. There’s an argument that the fact that someone makes a religious spoof, knowing believers might be offended, is de facto disrespectful of those believers. And there’s the counterargument by Christian author Jay Parini that, like Black Jesus, the Biblical Jesus was also criticized for hanging out with sinners, partiers and prostitutes (not to mention tax collectors).
Either way, there’s a difference between mockery of Jesus and mockery with Jesus, and Black Jesus is ultimately about the second. It’s often funny, but it’s not infallible. A lot of the first episode plays like a sketch-show bit that drags on too long, tees up giant stereotypes and goes for easy “Wouldn’t it be funny if Jesus did ____” gags. The Hallelujah Chorus plays as Black Jesus (Gerald “Slink” Johnson) walks down the street, has his van ticketed and gets in an argument with a homeless guy who wants the Son of God to tell him the day’s Lotto numbers. (“You smell like ass and crackers!” he snaps after first offering the guy some “kindness, compassion and love for all mankind” instead.)
You might expect McGruder, given his Boondocks history, to be out for pointed religious satire, but Black Jesus is really more of a stoner hangout comedy with a heart. In the pilot, Jesus chills with his well-meaning slacker friends, who bust his chops for smoking weed he never pays for and ask him to give them a ride to a business deal (also weed-related), plus “a miracle, just in case we need it–which we won’t!”
But the joke here is not really on Jesus so much as people who don’t want to hear the modern version of his message. Johnson, despite his Sunday-School-pageant getup, plays Jesus as an expansive, wide-armed fountain of love, who exudes goodness even when he gets pissed off, because that’s who he is: “I still love your bitch ass! By default, too!” It’s the unbelievers who get laughed at, like cynical landlord Vic (Charlie Murphy), who believes Jesus is a hustler and a fake. (The series, by the way, is pretty clear that Jesus is the real deal–at least, we see him read minds and heal by touch, though he insists, “I ain’t in charge of miracles. That’s Pops!”) Black Jesus may be crude and irreverent, but it’s most interested in mocking a world in which Jesus’ message perpetually won’t fly.
The second episode has some of the same flaws (including some badly caricatured Latino gang-bangers), but it also develops a running storyline that’s earnestly New Testament-ish in the show’s own weird way. Black Jesus gets his friends to reclaim a vacant lot as a community garden (with the enticement that they can grow marijuana tucked in with the onions and tomatoes). This sets off several conflicts, the comic targets of which are not the church or Jesus–Black or otherwise–but the crooks and self-dealers who care less about the community than their own community of one.
To recap: that’s Jesus and a crew of disciples, preaching a message of community, beset by cynics and unbelievers… in a garden. There are at least two ways Black Jesus can go from here. It could be a rowdy, funny, even powerful updating of the love-thy-neighbor message–verily, a parable. Or it could be a string of “Son of God N the Hood” jokes. McGruder could just convert a few doubters, if he can lead Black Jesus not into that temptation.