My previous article was an introductory exposition on Black Jesus and the treatment of Jesus by Aaron McGruder that discussed setting Black Jesus within an environment akin to the historical Jesus’ milieu. Now that I have seen two episodes (having written my first article only being exposed to the trailers), the show is clearly evolving into a departure from traditional Jesus stories. Instead, what Aaron McGruder is topically pursuing is commonly referred to as a Social Gospel. Black Jesus, while still retaining miraculous abilities (mostly for comedic effect), is relegated to the role of a populist figure practicing non-violent methods of protest against sociological institutions that perpetuate poverty and classism.
In “Fish and the Con Man,” Black Jesus continues to pursue his community by helping to create a commune-like gardening project aimed at stimulating community cohesiveness and providing healthy alternatives to exorbitant fruits and vegetables sold by retailers. (These companies commonly distribute food at costs affordable to only the middle and upper middle classes.) The needs of Black Jesus’ local neighborhood are already being answered by private charity organizations such as SuperFood Drive, which advocate the proliferation of superfoods into low income communities to curb child obesity and the onset of diet related diseases like diabetes and heart disease. In the pilot, Black Jesus likewise encourages community members to grow their own marijuana to circumvent the crime-driven drug markets that often put strangleholds on neighborhoods and projects. This episode continues that line of dialogue into the general welfare of the surrounding community.
Actually laying out an expanding narrative, unlike the loosely structured episodic narrative of The Boondocks, allows Aaron McGruder to create a modern, contemporary gospel experiment. Black Jesus can be tracked in his earthly ministry as a result. Like the synoptic gospels, and John’s memoir-gospel, the pacing is set, foreshadowing Jesus’s impending death as a martyr at the hands of Vic the Landlord and Lloyd (played by John Witherspoon). The episode, if it is meant to parallel a specific gospel story, is likely an introductory re-envisioning of the story in which Jesus feeds the Five Thousand. (In reality the number was significantly higher, reflecting only the census of the households gathered there. Jesus fed closer to 15-20,000 people that day, considering an average household of 2-3 people.)
The identities of Black Jesus’ disciples, and their analogues to those that followed the historical Jesus, are more ambiguous, though superficial observations might peg Maggie (Kali Hawk) as Mary Magdalene, Fish (Andra Fuller) as Peter, Trayvon (Andrew Bachelor) as John, and Lloyd (John Witherspoon) as Judas Iscariot, hired out by Vic the Landlord, a present day equivalent to a Roman or Pharisee. McGruder’s creative license with the inner circle of Jesus has yielded a less persecuted group of individuals. Jesus’ followers were far more marginalized and socially ostracized. Originally, these individuals were markedly poor and representative of lower class affiliates, and included those that lived outside of society because of irreconcilable qualities. Black Jesus’ followers are underdogs, certainly, but are still accepted within the niche cultures of the hood, despite being ex-cons and drug dealers, who serve as actuators of gangland economics. Aaron McGruder’s treatment of the disciples emphasizes his attempts at placing Jesus within a society abhorrent to middle and upper middle class cultures that would consider the hood an unsafe and dangerous den of crime and drug perpetuated poverty. The hood as depicted by McGruder is a tightly knit ecosystem of rights and privileges, presented as a subculture (a city within a city).
What the show does well is showcase the conflict within Jesus’ core 12 followers, which often clamored for influence, seeking blessings and kingly birthrights. The Sons of Zebedee once approached Jesus in Mark 10:35-39 asking if they could be appointed as his right and left hand attendants in the messianic kingdom. Naturally Jesus turned them away. Lloyd the bum is constantly trying to use Black Jesus as a means to an end, in the same manner as Judas Iscariot. And, of course, there is infighting and personal disagreement over Black Jesus’s wisdom and methodology. This was better showcased in the pilot where Black Jesus returns $2000 cash to a rival gang that attempted to scam Black Jesus’s crew and rob them.
Black Jesus continues to build upon apocryphal dialogues that existed in the later years of Christian expansion into the Hellenistic world. Transforming an empty dirt lot full of garbage into a community garden, has its own share of symbolic potency (especially considering the theology laid out by the Apostle Paul, his Kingdom oriented hope in the gradually restoration of the physical world). That alone escapes this article’s scope. Suffice to say, Aaron McGruder continues to surprise and amaze with his nuanced treatment of a modern day Jesus experiment.