Hulu original ‘Woke’ feels like watching 2020 on-screen

Monday, September 14, 2020 - 2:26pm

NOSELL

Hulu

2020 has turned out to be one of those years that edgy millennials like to call “a complete dumpster fire.” It goes without saying that the pandemic has given the year a bad reputation, but in the United States, matters have only been made worse by police brutality, climate disaster and a looming election.

“Woke” has captured the innate absurdity of being a person and, more specifically, an American right now. Based on the life of cartoonist Keith Knight, the new Hulu original series follows the life of Keef (Lamorne Morris, “New Girl”) as he balances a Kafkaesque reality. As an artist, Keef prides himself on “keeping things light” and avoiding addressing his own identity as a Black man. This approach has brought him success with his comic strip, “Toast & Butter,” which in the show is about to be syndicated and published in newspapers throughout the country. 

Things change, however, when Keef is tackled and held at gunpoint by the San Francisco Police, who say he matches the description of a suspect. Narrowly escaping the situation with his life, Keef begins seeing his own cartoons everywhere. In a convenience store, two bottles of malt liquor trade racial epithets. His favorite marker starts demanding he get more political with his artwork. Before long, Keef has a breakdown and embarrasses himself in front of an audience of confused fans. 

What “Woke” presents is one version of how a person can “get woke” to the harsh realities of systemic racism in American society. As a Black man and a cartoonist, Keef realizes that his identity will always be entwined with his art, whether he wants it to be or not. Like many POC-led shows, “Woke” posits that, in a country still struggling with its own racism, the only way to survive is to get angry. 

As a dramedy, this Hulu series has the difficult task of finding a blend of satirical humor with serious convictions. Some of the material might be tired, the jokes told better in other shows like Netflix’s “Dear White People” or movies like Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” Still, “Woke,” with its politically-conscious inanimate objects, feels like the most literal depiction of realizing the world is more fucked up than you thought. 

The microaggressions and violent discrimination shown in “Woke” are by no means new to American audiences. When paired with the current political moment, it’s hard to ignore the show’s timeliness. The experiences of “Woke” are not isolated incidents — they are simple, daily truths of life for Black Americans.

By placing Keef in an unjust altercation with the police, the series calls upon the viewers’ knowledge of police brutality toward people of color and the extreme mistreatment of Black Lives Matter protesters in recent months. “Woke” knows what you’ve seen and it asks, “If you don’t wake up now, what else could it possibly take?” 

While “Woke” may feel like a perfect show for 2020, it’s important to remember that the problems Keef and his friends face are not unique to one single year. The world’s injustices won’t magically disappear once the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, 2020. Blaming the current state of affairs on this “dumpster fire” of a year will never address the root of the issue. The only way to fix things is to wake up and realize what is broken beyond repair.

Daily Arts Writer Anya Soller can be reached at anyasol@umich.edu.