Black Jesus will be immortalized in a new Adult Swim show of the same name, but He existed long before Aaron McGruder thought him up. The idea of a dark-skinned, possibly woolly-haired lord and savior is a stark contrast to the blond-haired and blue-eyed depiction that is the accepted, if inaccurate, frontman of Christianity, but it has existed at least since the 19th century. Historians, forensic scientists, and Biblical scholars have long suggested that Jesus, whose racial appearance was not specified by the Bible, was unlikely to have had porcelain-hued skin and long, flowing hair; rather, that rendering was the result of a lengthy and complex racist mission.
But, in recent decades, black Jesus has crept his way into pop culture as a shape-shifting rebuke to the whitewashing of history. He has been referenced in television, film, and music, sometimes simply as a cultural flashpoint, other times as a liberator. In most instances, he serves as a response to the fallacy of white Jesus. The ubiquity of black Jesus is no wonder—the church has long served as an integral component of much African-American life, providing hope where reality did not make it amenable. “Black Jesus, he's like a Saint that we can trust to help to carry us through,” rapped 2Pac on “Black Jesus” from 1999’s Still I Rise.
Adult's Swim's new Black Jesus series, produced by McGruder of The Boondocks fame and Mike Clattenburg of Trailer Park Boys, is a live-action show that follows a modern-day Son of God living in south L.A. The show is a re-interpretation of a cult YouTube series produced during the writers’ strike of 2009, which depicted Jesus as a weed-smoking, brown liquor-drinking, joke-cracking Everyman with a discernible Compton accent and a tendency to call out his friends for their lack of faith. Jesus, played by Gerald “Slink” Johnson, wears a crown of thorns over his perm, flowing brown robes, and old-school leather sandals. He also smokes copious amounts of weed mooched off his friends and makes miracles by turning water into cognac.
On the Adult Swim adaption, the short, improvised sketches are used as the basis of a half-hour-long sitcom following Jesus and his raggedy band of disciples as they navigate the so-called “mean streets” of Compton. By the second episode, the gang has hatched a plan to grow weed under the guise of a community garden full of seasonal vegetables; ostensibly, the rest of the season will see them come up against a pair of Mexican gangsters and other obstacles to their otherwise harebrained scheme. Starring John Witherspoon, Charlie Murphy, and Vine star King Bach, Black Jesus has a distinctly glossier feel than its YouTube counterpart.
Unsurprisingly, it has not been without its criticisms. Conservative Christian group One Million Moms, for instance, has objected to Black Jesus on the grounds that “the foul language used in the trailer, including using the Lord’s name in vain, is disgusting. In addition, there is violence, gunfire and other inappropriate gestures which completely misrepresent Jesus.”
“This show is not an exercise to offend people,” McGruder countered. “It has lots of heart,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
“The Boondocks was always going to be noisy and controversial, and that’s what people wanted from me for a long time. At the end of the day, Black Jesus is likely to be noisy and controversial. It’s going to make its noise, and I’m happy to let that happen. The work can stand on its own,” he added.
What is most striking about Black Jesus, more so than the premise, is the casualness with which its primary characters are formed out of race-based stereotypes—among others, there are three angry and needlessly violent black and Latino women, a lazy mama’s boy, an ex-con who can’t help his criminality, and two cruel, daft Mexican gangbangers.
On The Boondocks, McGruder used rigid, severe characters—the self-righteous conspiracy theorist Huey, the violent, rap-obsessed Riley, and the self-loathing Uncle Ruckus, for instance—to drive a broader message about race and society. On Black Jesus, it’s doubtful whether the undynamic characters are intentional or a function of poor writing.
As with The Boondocks, McGruder’s work here is tongue-in-cheek, requiring a suspension of belief in the rational. But unlike The Boondocks, which delivered a poignant social critique through the animated story of two boys who leave Chicago to live in the suburbs with their grandfather, it is unclear what exactly he hopes to accomplish with Black Jesus. Is a critique of church and of the broader fallibility of organized religion forthcoming? Does he intend to use the racial tropes the show’s characters are based on to make a larger point? Is subversion on the horizon or will Black Jesus sacrifice a historically political concept for the sake of a stoner comedy? Only God knows.