Boonie: Man, God ain’t good man. God sucks right now.
Black Jesus: Oh negro of little faith, isn’t the miracle of the forgivin’ cholos enough proof to let yo’ disbelievin’ ass know that God want this shit to go down, man? This is ordained, pimp!
Black Jesus has evolved over the past 5 episodes from a hopeful and inspiring reimagining of Jesus Christ, being reallocated to Compton, to an apocalyptic struggle between the lower middle class and their overlords. McGruder’s Black Jesus is decidedly human this episode, prone to lying and less in control than usual. Deep into the first season, Black Jesus is now far removed from his messianic origins, but still serves as a populist figure in the community of Compton. Like the iconic narrative featuring the tortured messiah sweating drops of blood (a real condition brought on by severe stress), Black Jesus endures a test in the community garden. A group of protestors led by Vic come to mock Black Jesus, and the arrival of the unruly landlords, the cholos, causes Fish to nearly resort to violence, the police arrive. McGruder’s sensitivity to the story of Jesus remains intact, only without the highlights of the famous gospel narratives. Black Jesus retains his messianic calling to restore the community and their relationships with one another, but is undermined by telling lies and being markedly indecisive. Upon closer inspection however, the intention of the episode is clear, which is to establish social hierarchy. How Black Jesus relates with the pecking order of Compton, McGruder searches out and yields interesting results.
The world of the 1st century Palestine was a complicated socio-political mess. Palestine was influenced by both Roman and lingering Hasmonean memories. The Jews were afflicted by not just foreign invaders, but also would-be kings set over them, intent on currying favor with the most powerful empire in recorded history. A couple thousand years later, it’s remarkable how similar the political climate of 1st Century Palestine is compared to modern day Compton. Black Jesus, which is scandalous for the concept’s rebellion against the favored conception of Jesus in contemporary culture, could not be more at home in Compton. Vic, like the kings of Palestine, is an authority figure within the social setting of the neighborhood. As a landlord, he manages rent and living space, which he uses to leverage influence over his tenant community. Below him are the commoners with their own lives and places within the larger community. The police, representing the larger authoritative force that has direct control over the community is portrayed as an intermediary, non-involved force. They arrive to dispense justice when it concerns them, but otherwise stay out of the conflict and weigh heavily on the minds of the people they preside over.
“Fried Green Tomatoes” relegates the role of Black Jesus, his apostles, and the surrounding community to the back seat. The episode is all about perception; specifically, what the community makes of Black Jesus. McGruder’s treatment of Black Jesus focuses on misunderstanding, as well as the selfishness the surrounding community displays. The largest contributing demographic to Black Jesus’s commune are Latinos which, as a tool of satire, shames the African American community for their reticent adoption of Black Jesus’s message and their lack of cooperation to make the community more cohesive. Black Jesus’s message, regardless of sense and reason, is lampooned by the ineffectual community elders as bizarre and unseemly. The movement going on under their noses is compared to the inner workings of a cult, but the demonstrations led by Vic to protest the community are nothing more than veiled displays of jealousy and contempt for Black Jesus’ public experiment.
Rome is represented by the local law enforcement in Black Jesus, and is a salient presence across the boroughs of hoods everywhere. Like in the Gospels and the Book of Acts, the police represent the institutions that reign over the entire community. Their influence permeates the lives of those in Compton, for better or worse. Fish is an ex-con, Boonie was nearly arrested for being unable to pay child support, and the community garden was searched for the marijuana reportedly being grown on site. When they easily disperse the crowds in protest over the garden, there is no question behind who has ultimate control over the dealings in Compton. The Romans were very much of the same stock, being the de-facto authority in Hellenic Greece and ancient Palestine. And while it is true that the Romans were the ones complicit in Jesus’s crucifixion, whether the Hebrew messiah lived or died was likely of no concern to them. Jesus only posed a threat to Pontius Pilate as a potential revolutionary, designated by the jews as a zealot (active insurgents bent on freeing Israel from foreign influence). Like Vic rousing the anger of Compton residents, the religious powers that be during Jesus’ time did not urge Jesus to be executed for superficial reasons entierly regarding his theological beliefs, but because of his upending and unraveling of social hierarchy. Without the Pharisees and Sadducees’ influence, the common people could live free of oppressive theocratic structures that extorted and led them farther away from the covenant God of Israel. Black Jesus’ public garden, a tool for advancing communal cohesiveness in Compton, destabilizes other existing community systems like the neighborhood watch or local clubs with exclusive rights over other citizens. Ultimately, the riotous crowds coming to meet him only foreshadow the inevitable: his crucifixion.
Black Jesus’s trial in “Fried Green Tomatoes” is a social one, which works in tandem with McGruder’s social gospel interpretation of Jesus. Unlike the iconic portrayals of Jesus in the past, Black Jesus is markedly flawed, the worst of his habits coming out in this particular episode. Clearly, McGruder’s goal is to show a man at wits end with his own people. Seen praying in the garden at the beginning of the episode, Black Jesus broods over his community as a loving protector. The scene is a combination of two instances in New Testament literature: Jesus’s temptation out in the wilderness and his time of trial in the Garden of Gethsemane. The former illustrated Jesus’ beginnings as a wilderness prophet. The latter conceives of Jesus’ end, sitting in a garden as the perfect man, ready to encounter the cosmic weight of God’s wrath. The crux (so to speak) of Black Jesus will be explored in the series’ conclusion, which has yet to be revealed. How Black Jesus will die (if he dies) for the communal sins of the people of Compton, will reveal the soul of McGruder’s project of exploring the purpose of Jesus in modern society.