Fighting the struggle to unite a broken community in Compton, Black Jesus seems to meet his match in Black Jesus, episode 4 “I Gave at the Playground.” This complicates McGruder’s construction of Jesus more so than before. Since the first episode, the character of Black Jesus has been slipping further from predominant historical conceptions of the Semitic messiah. McGruder has never aimed to solely represent what Christians believe Jesus to be, but hypothesize his role as a populist figure. Black Jesus’s heritage draws upon a tradition of social reconstruction. In the previous episode, McGruder allowed his Jesus to commit grand theft, which muddles the portrait of Black Jesus. Is he a crafty, yet scrupulous baron, or following his conscience to commit a crime out of desperation? Saying that the world has grown too complicated for the historical Jesus to reside unchanged couldn’t be farther from the truth when considering the political climate of 1st century Palestine. The law was hardly opaque in those days, and suffered from corrupt regional satrapies. Concerning Black Jesus, episode 3 gave way to new territory. In episode 4, however, Black Jesus’s identity and role as a messiah to Compton dynamically shifts from a tired anecdote to a bold reinterpretation. If episode 3 confounded Black Jesus’s positioning as a divine and benevolent messiah, episode 4 clarifies Black Jesus’s methodology for putting things right in the hood.
The unfolding drama between Boonie and Shalinka, a broken couple in dispute over unpaid child support, characterizes a larger problem in the African American community: domestic strife. McGruder depicts Boonie as an absent father who loves his children, but not his ex-girlfriend. Shalinka, Boonie’s old squeeze, while largely pardoned throughout the episode, is not without her own wig-related addictions. Both are seen as hopelessly selfish and materialistic, allowing their children to be caught in the middle, thereby sowing seeds of familial discord for generations to come. Black Jesus’ role in the episode is largely eclipsed by Boonie and Shalinka’s feud. Even Black Jesus’ formulaic attempts to heal their broken relationship are largely ineffective, as his active position in the conflict is relegated to that on an observer. This odd change of pace is not accidental by any means. Many in the African American community are placed unwillingly into a similar position as Black Jesus, forced to watch the families around them decay. The strife of the broken family impregnates the entire community with suspicion and scorn, and indirectly affects the attitudes of even the healthiest families.
The Jews of Jesus’ times were not without their own struggles. Synagogues dispensed culture and heritage to the surrounding Jewish communities. Roman occupation and the alluring lifestyle of Greek Hellenism continually assaulted the Jewish ways of life as an invasive worldview threatening to suffocate Jewish culture in the Ancient Near East. Due to the constant bombardment, the Jewish community became a fractured and pluralistic society. The hoods and ghettos of today are analogues to the indigenous communities under the weight of Rome’s influence over the Mediterranean. McGruder names the erosion of community as one of the troubles Compton faces, mostly due to the values appropriated from foreign hegemonic cultures invading the hood. Shallow materialism, marketed to exploit the ailing resources of ghettos and hoods, and WASP individualism synergize into an aggressive strain of aimless autonomy. Not wanting to be held down by children, each parent leaves to pursue the pipedream of personal wealth and renown, manifested beautifully as Shalinka’s wigs, upon which she spends Boonie’s child support. Without strong families, children grow up and seek their own and find their support structures in gangs, thus perpetuating a cycle of crime within troubled neighborhoods. Black Jesus’ “I Gave at the Playground” suggests that, once righted, a community can come together. The title of episode 4 is not without significance as well, conjuring the language of lay churches that serve their respective communities. The charity of providing for children to have a safe and stable upbringing is paramount to wholesome development. McGruder’s sense of humor, that the object “given” is rather “extorted” in the form of legally mandated stipends, denounces the efforts of the Compton community to provide for their own. The community’s fractured identity has invited the scrutiny of intrusive, hegemonic institutions that do not represent the common well-being of the community.
Black Jesus then advances his role as a father to the community, interceding in the problems that plague Boonie and Shalinka. He offers advice and counsel to each of them on separate occasions. Though he does not explicitly suggest that he is being a father to these people, Black Jesus’ position on saving Boonie’s relationship with his own children illustrates the importance of Boonie’s role in their lives as their father. In providing counsel for Boonie and Shalinka, Black Jesus is supplying the much needed role of father that the two lacked in their respective childhoods. Clearly, Black Jesus plays an active role with each broken parent and affects a much needed change in Compton society.
The end of the episode, however, suggests that Black Jesus was powerless to restore Boonie his money, which the children were in possession of the whole time. Shalinka and Boonie’s departing words of the episode confirm their belief that Black Jesus was ineffectual at fixing their problems:
Boonie: “Believe in what? You didn’t do anything.”
Boonie: “What this fool talkin’ about?”
Shalinka: “Because Jesus don’t what he talkin’ about.”
McGruder’s hypothesis weakens considerably at this juncture because his thesis is negated. True, Black Jesus didn’t accomplish what he set out to do, which is fixing Boonie and Shalinka’s relationship. In fact, in confidence with Shalinka, Black Jesus encourages Shalinka to move on and try again to find another man to be with. What is going on here? Upon closer inspection, a possible solution can be found for this problem, which is that McGruder believes, realistically, only the Compton community can solve this endemic problem. Rather than offer a stimulus solution, McGruder, through the actions of Black Jesus, is firm in his decision. After Shalinka speaks with Black Jesus, she is left with a choice: to either take action against Boonie, or give him another chance at paying the child support. She heeds Black Jesus’ advice of taking charge of her life by allowing Boonie to be nearly arrested and incarcerated by the police. Though this is counterintuitive, and robs a father from her children, she is actually breaking a cycle of codependence and starting a new life for herself. Whether or not Boonie understands this is not revealed. The experience of being handcuffed by detectives and saying goodbye to his friends is implied as enough, as Boonie and Shalinka come together to reunite as a partnership after their children hand over the money that Boonie had given them the previous month.
By a strange turn of events, Black Jesus’s “I Gave at the Playground” offers a new solution for change in Compton that bypasses the role Black Jesus has in his show. McGruder’s intension is clear however. Compton cannot live on “bread” alone.