Comics & Graphic Novels Interview Television

Cartoonist Keith Knight on ‘Woke,’ Politics, and the Power of Comics

Keith Knight is the creator of three popular comic strips: the Knight Life, (th)ink, and the K Chronicles. He has appeared in various publications worldwide, including the Washington Post, Daily KOS, San Francisco Chronicle, Medium.com, Ebony, ESPN the Magazine, L.A. Weekly, MAD Magazine, and the Funny Times. I sat down with Keith to talk his new show, Woke, now on Hulu, as well as politics, the craziness of 2020 and also the impact of animation and cartoon drawing by artists of color.

About Woke

Inspired by the life and work of artist Keith Knight, comedy series Woke takes an absurdly irreverent look at identity and culture as it follows Keef (played by Lamorne Morris), an African American cartoonist finally on the verge of mainstream success when an unexpected incident changes everything. With a fresh outlook on the world around him, Keef must now navigate the new voices and ideas that confront and challenge him, all without setting aflame everything he’s already built. The series stars Morris, T. Murph, and Blake Anderson and is developed by Marshall Todd and Keith Knight.

Woke is super dope. When I first saw the trailer and looked more into the events that brought this show to life and your work as well, I knew exactly what this was about, just as another creator of color, and so I really appreciated seeing that. How are you since finishing production? 2020 has been kicking all of our asses, but what has it been like for you and your craft and your family?

KEITH: It’s like a very surreal — it’s been very difficult for everybody. But it’s especially just bizarre that I’m doing better than I’ve personally done while the world burns, you know? I just remember at the beginning of this year, 2020, and I was scheduled to speak at the Library of Congress in February, and I was shooting the show, and my college called — Salem State University — and they asked me to do commencement in the spring. I remember calling my wife after and going, “man… things are going WAY too good.” And, you know, no one knew — we finished shooting at the end of February and then a week and a half later everything shuts down. I just consider myself so fortunate.

It was just a weird shift in everything and it’s been so terribly difficult — I know this pandemic has revealed every horrendous — everything that’s wrong with our system in the States has been revealed through this and at the same time I honestly don’t believe that it only took something like this for us to see. When George Floyd was murdered by that cop, everyone was stuck inside, and they had to reckon with this. They couldn’t turn away and forget about everything. They had to see it. And I think this really pushed people to see the things that Black people have been seeing for so long. Yet we have a person in office who does not give a shit.

We saw it in 2012, we saw it in 2014 and 2016, but something about this inflection point was a kind of perfect storm. You were talking about how quickly everything shutdown as soon as you finished filming, so thinking about how intense the year turned, how reflective do you feel Woke has become and is there anything you wish you could have added?

I mean, in hindsight I don’t think we could have really anticipated everything, and you can’t try and tweak things to make yourself sound like “hey, we’re hip and happening.” The show, for me, has always sort of vaguely been in the past. We don’t clearly say when it was — whether it’s nine months ago or five years ago, we don’t say exactly when it is. And I just hope we have the opportunity for a second season where we will address a lot of the stuff that’s been going on and have the chance to reckon with what is now — what seems to be a world that’s much more aware and active in the fight. In the good fight and the bad fight because there have been many engaged in the bad fight as well.

Social media has really exposed us to that, and I think Woke is timely and timeless in that regard — the barbershop scene is one of my favorites because I see that now, that kind of co-opted and gentrified space that didn’t really exist there before. It just reminded me of so many parts of Brooklyn where my father’s family grew up and how often they tell me the new things that weren’t there in the ’80s.

Yea, I just remember my barbershop that I would go to in San Francisco and I just remember the transition when more white people started to show up there to get their haircut and you began to feel that you couldn’t really talk the way you’d like to. So, it was definitely important for us to have that barbershop scene and for me I remember saying what’s going to encapsulate the character Keef — the scene is a loving homage to Spike Lee and it solidifies this character Keef as the Charlie Brown of activism. I really felt like I wanted the show — the ideal show to think about was A Charlie Brown Christmas. It had everything it in, it had Charlie Brown trying to do something, but everyone is thwarting it at least and ripping on him but there’s a deep moment with Linus and I just felt like every episode of Woke would have this loser moment with something deep and profound in it. And of course, it should have the same kind of jazzy, funky music and I was so psyched that Stanley Clarke did such a great job with the music.

I think Lamorne Morris did such a phenomenal job and I’m thinking, what was it like to watch him play you? I have aspirations when I make a biopic to have Will Smith play me, but maybe my ambitions are overly lofty.

He just did a phenomenal job, just an amazing job. I know my wife — when my family came to the set and he showed up in costume she said, “yep, yea that works.” She absolutely loved the show and binged it the first night, and Lamorne just carried. He’s always the best thing in a lot of the stuff that he’s in so to watch him branch out and do comedy but also drama, was phenomenal because the character goes through so much and he did such a great job. We work in the same wheelhouse of just — we have the same demeanor, and so it really helped. The chemistry of everyone else amplified it and it was great to be there and see it happen. I’ve always heard these horror stories of people selling their work to Hollywood and not being happy with it and so I felt if Hollywood was going to screw this up, I wanted to be in the middle of it. It was really important to be in as many aspects of it as possible, from writing to helping with costumes and designing the animations — I mean, picking out music and auditions, all those small things really mattered.

It really shines through in his performance and in the cinematography and music — you mentioned those horror stories of folks selling their work to Hollywood and it becoming a mess. As a writer myself, it makes me horrified to think of something like that happening with a project or with work you care so deeply about.

Yea, I remember some of the early advice I got, some folks in Hollywood were telling me, “don’t sell them anything you’re close to.” Because they’re going to take it and they’re going to screw it up — the problem is, the only thing Hollywood wanted to buy from me was the closest thing to me, which is my autobiographical comics. I guess I could have said no, but this is what I’ve always wanted so it was important for me. There were compromises that were made and that’s part of working in this medium and it’s a different medium than comics, so different things are going to work and different things are not. I understand most of the decisions — maybe not all of them, but I just hope we get a second season so we can take what works and what works well and just run with it and improve on the criticisms that we know we could have done better on.

You’ve been critical in your career through your work and medium — are you seeing folks being more critical of your work in return now more than before? Are you seeing more push back despite talking about all the necessary things?

No, not any new push back. I think when you talk about provocative things you’re going to get ripped on. Again, it’s one of the reasons why the character in the show is doing a comic strip called “toast & butter,” no one is going to write a thousand-page article about “toast & butter” and pulling it apart and everything. But they’re absolutely going to take a show like Woke and pick it apart and talk about it and write about it in positive ways and negative ways. I’ve always said this with editors, because editors would always write to me whenever I did something that was considered “controversial” and they’d say, “we’re getting letters and calls!” And I’d always say to them this: wouldn’t you rather get letters and calls, whether it’s positive or negative, about a strip that ran than just not hearing anything at all? To me, that’s part of what art does is it gets people talking and active. I think that’s a good thing.

You’re right. It’s also frustrating to consider, for a moment, that being critical of a very real history gets push back — but that just means we’re doing the right thing.

Oh, yea. And that’s the thing, we’re hearing more people getting defensive when they hear about the true history of this country, and I do that with my comics and slideshows — I did these slideshows across the country, at schools and at churches, and at various workplaces and I talked about America’s racial illiteracy and the ways we’re not taught how this country was actually built and where things like law enforcement originated. And I often address inequities and how financial disparities can be explained through redlining and not giving Black people a fair shot even through the educational system. All of that stuff, I do it through my comics where I use humor to get there because I believe humor makes everything go down easier. I make the argument that all this history — people want to know this history, and it’s going to make them understand why there are protests going on today. It will make them understand why there’s someone like Trump in the White House after the first Black president. It will make them understand why the conditions of schools and the conditions of Black neighborhoods are the way they are — if you know the history of this country.

Like you’ve been saying, these are such necessary conversations. What’s some advice that you could leave for other Black and Brown artists trying to grapple with their place in the world and the world’s place on them?

That’s a good question — I would just say, believe in yourself and have confidence in your voice. Make sure you tell your story. I talk about this to kids — tell your story because if you don’t, someone else is going to tell it for you and they’re going to get it wrong. You think about all these articles saying the younger generation is “destroying this” or “they don’t care about this” — that’s written by older, bitter people who are often envious of youth. So, don’t let those stories define you, tell your own story. 

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