There is a saying that goes, “The pen is mightier than the sword,” and in many cases, that’s true, especially in the case of Keith Knight. Since the early nineties, Knight’s comic work has chronicled racism, politics, and the overall state of society. Wildly successful, Knight’s journey wasn’t easy. Inspired by the life of the cartoonist, musician, and social activist, Woke is a series that takes a satirical approach to racism, gentrification, and relationships in San Francisco. Also created by Knight and Marshall Todd, Woke is a necessary addition to the television landscape. Although the series uses Keith Knight’s life as a template, the show was adapted to fit a modern timeline.
Keef Knight (Lamorne Morris) is a cartoonist on the rise, his comic strip ‘Toast and Butter’ preparing to go into syndication. With mainstream success at his fingertips, Keef is determined not to blow his shot at fame and fortune. Unfortunately, everything changes when Keef has a violent run-in with the San Francisco PD (Due to a case of mistaken identity). Simply placing flyers for his comic, Keef is tackled by an officer and narrowly escapes becoming another fatality of police brutality.
Prior to the incident, Keef was the kind of Black man that didn’t consider himself to be like “the others.” Self-proclaimed to be non-controversial, Keef attempted to be oblivious to the various racial tensions going on. Following the incident, Keef becomes “woke,” finally opening up to the depressing fact that he isn’t “special” or unique in the eyes of racism. With new eyes after being mistreated, Keef undergoes an existential transformation.
While there have been a host of films and television that have creatively processed race relations in the United States, Woke does so in a more light-hearted and absurd way. Woke joins the ranks of fare like Dear White People and Sorry to Bother You in its comedic, yet a cutthroat way of telling society about itself. In a time where racism continues to rear its ugly head, sometimes humor is the best way to cope.
After he becomes “woke,” Keef starts hearing and seeing talking inanimate objects. Combining live-action with animation, Keef’s mind becomes a battleground as he attempts to process his trauma. Keith Knight’s actual artwork star in its own right, making numerous appearances. There’s a marker, (JB Smooth) a trashcan, (Cedric the Entertainer) a brown paper bag (Cree Summer), and a pair of 40 bottles (Nicole Byer and Eddie Griffin). Each seems to taunt him and play into racial stereotypes.
Keef’s emotional transformation doesn’t occur overnight. He does attempt to cling onto his old life and success, but once you start to “see,” it can be hard to go back. Slowly but surely, Keef decides to use his artistic talents for a greater cause. Along the way, Keef has polarizing discussions with his two roommates. Gunther (Blake Anderson) is the stereotypical enlightened white stoner who is often well-intentioned, but still doesn’t entirely understand his white privilege. Clovis (T. Murph) is the constantly hustling, struggling ladies’ man who’s in touch with his Blackness, but is content with not doing anything more with himself. Meanwhile, Keef meets Ayana, (Sasheer Zamata) a journalist who encourages his creative journey and a new outlook on life.
Woke starts a little bit clumsily, but it morphs into something more profound towards the end of its short season. Woke doesn’t really tell us what we don’t already know, but it provides a refreshing perspective on touchy topics such as allyship with non-Black people of color, interracial-relationships, white privilege, gentrification, and the economic disparity in San Francisco specifically. At times the various interactions are cringe-inducing, but in reality, aren’t they cringe anyway? We can describe Woke as a satire but in this day and age, is it really?
In its eight episodes, the season picks up in the second half. I genuinely wish the season had the same energy throughout, but it’s worth the payout if you make it till the end. Episode six, “Dap, Peace, F*ck You” is the series highlight, centering heartfelt conversation between all the main characters. Lamorne Morris brings a lot of heart and humor to his role, and this is the space where we see it the most. Additionally, the supporting actors are given time to develop. We see a softer side of Clovis and Ayana. Gunther even shows some character development.
Following “Dap, Peace, F*ck You,” Woke packs more of a punch. The penultimate episode, “Prayers for Kubby” is perhaps the most absurd, but it’s a searing takedown of performative “wokeness” and social media culture. While Keef, Clovis, and Gunther ride the notoriously chaotic San Francisco public transit, a beloved koala go missing. Kubby the koala roams about the city, the bus passengers following his every move. For whatever reason, the passengers begin to donate to a Gofundme for Kubby, while a homeless man asking for bus fare is ignored. Only Keef notices this, realizing how his fellow humans are more willing to extend compassion to an animal than a Black man, or any other disenfranchised human for that matter.
Overall, Woke is a worthy watch if you’re looking for some humor in dark times. The series has the potential to go so much farther with its material. Ending on a cliffhanger, Woke leaves a lot to be desired, and a lot to discuss. Keef Knight’s journey is one that is powerful but hasn’t been given enough screen time to truly make an impact. Will we be able to see more? Only time will tell.