Crossing the third rails of race and religion, “Black Jesus” is guaranteed to offend some people. In fact, one might accuse Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim of a certain naivete in greenlighting a project where the rewards, even in success, are likely to be overshadowed by the negative blowback, with various faith groups having already weighed in. That said, this live-action series from “The Boondocks'” Aaron McGruder and director Mike Clattenburg is also disarmingly and pretty consistently funny, buoyed by Gerald “Slink” Johnson’s portrayal of You Know Who. Strictly in comedy terms, the road to Hell has been paved with a lot worse shows than this.
At 6’5″, Johnson cuts an imposing figure as the wigged Jesus, who hangs out with a group of pals in Compton (his robe has a way of frequently getting caught in car doors), smokes most of their weed and cheerfully reminds them — when they dare question him — that he “died for your mother-f—— sins.”
With the exception of their landlord (Charlie Murphy), who considers Jesus a con man, everyone pretty much takes it on faith that Jesus is who he claims he is. When asked to perform a miracle, he also reminds them he isn’t in charge of that area. “That’s Pops,” he says.
Jesus’ not-quite-apostles include Fish (Andra Fuller), an ex-con with a temper; Boonie (Corey Holcomb), who’s usually drunk; and Jason (Antwon Tanner), who seems pretty content hanging out and getting high, much to the chagrin of his beautiful girlfriend (Valenzia Algarin), who happens to be a cop. There’s also Boonie’s mom (Angela Gibbs), who loves the Lord, yes, but loves the money she earns selling pot more.
Obviously, “Black Jesus” doesn’t appear overly concerned about trafficking in stereotypes. But there’s a sweetness underneath its scabrous, sacrilegious exterior, as Johnson’s Jesus puts his own spin on all the greatest hits — saying things like, “I still love your bitch ass” — while endeavoring to establish a community garden. (An equal-opportunity offender, in the second episode, that effort runs afoul of Mexican gang members.)
Even on the usually sedate comics page, McGruder has always been an acerbic social commentator, and this series — essentially a live-action cartoon in tone — certainly fits that profile. Indeed, “Black Jesus” is funny in part because it ventures so eagerly into areas most producers and networks, worn down by years of calls for sponsor boycotts and bad publicity, have simply decided it’s easier to avoid.
So while there’s an audience within the Adult Swim profile that should find “Black Jesus” to its liking, the show’s flock had better show up in reasonably good numbers (by latenight standards, anyway), and relatively soon. Because in the modern history of TV, it doesn’t take much to give the higher powers a bad case of cold feet or, when faced with a controversy, prompt them to wash their hands of it.