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A Cartoonist's Eyes are Made Wide Open in 'Woke' on Hulu
September 9, 2020  | By David Hinckley

Being identified as "woke" – that is, finally understanding the multiple core inequities of American society – can get you admired or ridiculed these days, depending on who has done the identifying.

The new Hulu series Woke, which premieres Wednesday, mercifully sidesteps much of the judgment and focuses instead on how much energy and work this new awareness requires.

Packaged in half-hour episodes of dark comedy, Woke follows the story of Keef Knight (Lamorne Morris, top), a Black cartoonist about to reap the rewards from years of drawing a strip called Toast and Butter.

Toast and Butter is going into national syndication. A major bread company wants to license the images, and other merch deals are looming.

We join Keef on the eve of the Golden-Con convention, where his appearance will serve as a kind of coming-out party for all this success.

In anticipation, Keef's girlfriend, Kerstin (Lara Goldie), his long-time fan and supporter, has already picked out an upscale condo they can buy with his new windfall.

That delicious reward will remove him from the tiny walk-up apartment he now shares with the endearing but slightly goofy Gunther (Blake Anderson), and Keef's best friend, Clovis (T. Murph), in San Francisco's Haight district.

The only cloud in this sunny sky floats by in a short passing conversation wherein Keef explains that he avoids political and social issues in Toast and Butter, precisely because there's value in "keeping it light" in tense times and tacitly seeing the world in a color-blind way.

Then out of nowhere, as Keef is walking along the street posting flyers for his Golden-Con appearance, something happens. It's probably not much of a spoiler to say it involves the San Francisco Police Department, and it recalibrates Keef's outlook on the world, not to mention his outlook on Toast and Butter.

It also readjusts his behavior, so his previously plotted path to fame and fortune now suddenly takes a slightly different direction.

It's a premise that clearly could get serious and intense because in the real world these days, that's how a "woke" conversion tends to be regarded by both admirers and critics.

Hulu's Woke, created by real-life cartoonist Keith Knight and writer Marshall Todd, partly from events in Knight's life, doesn't go the lecture-and-argue route.

Rather, it lays out situations and events and conversations that can trigger an increasing woke-ness, while at the same time, finding little ironies and absurdities that don't diminish the problem, but add peripheral complexities.

Keef finds a "woke" life requires considerably more work, concentration, and strategizing than his previous life, and all that juggling inevitably creates moments that are both amusing and sobering.  
Woke further lightens its tone with multiple popular culture references. The first episode is barely five minutes old when we get our first reference to Aaron McGruder, creator of the revolutionary Boondocks comic strip.

The vignette built on a famous scene from Spike Lee's Do The Right Thing will make viewers – almost certainly including Lee if he sees it – laugh out loud. There's also an homage to the Barbershop movie series (co-creator Marshall wrote the screenplay for the first film), which includes a white barber confidently declaring that Keef probably wants a "42" haircut.

Woke requires viewers to accept animation as a regular part of the storyline, but those sequences are consistent with the show's tone, so they don't get in the way.

Mainly, Woke never wavers from its more serious points. It just uses comedy to smooth the route by which it takes us there.

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