Tuesday, August 5, 2014

“Black Jesus”: On calls to boycott movies or TV programs

In general, I’m extremely reluctant to embrace any call to boycott a movie or TV series without first watching the film or series.   I’ve had that policy in general, even if I’m pretty sure that I will be on the side of those boycotting.  I forced myself to go see Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in part because so many people had condemned movies like The Last Temptation of Christ, Dogma, (or even Harry Potter) without ever seeing for themselves.   If I’m going to condemn a movie or TV show, I feel obligated to do so from first hand experience.  And even then, I usually prefer active conversation about the movie or series, rather than an outright boycott.

There are some exceptions.  Reality TV show controversies often occur because of what the participants say in real life (consider Duck Dynasty):  I don’t have to see the show in that case to react to the actors words or actions.  I totally respect Doon MacKichan’s call to boycott shows that have “…storylines that use violence against women as entertainment.”  And I actively asked on my blog if I had to go see God's Not Dead in order to be critical of it (I chose not to see it).

“Black Jesus” is a real quandary.  I just heard of the show, thanks to a Huffington Post article covered by Episcopal Cafe.  While I expected right wing groups to voice vocal dissent (just as they did with the SNL sketch DJesus Uncrossed), I was surprised to see this statement from The Union of Black Episcopalians:

CALL TO ACTION: Cancel "Black Jesus" - "Black Jesus," is a comedy show slated to premiere, on August 7, on the Cartoon Network during its child-unfriendly late-night spot, which they call Adult Swim. (Cartoon Network is owned by Turner Broadcasting, which owns CNN.) 
As Christians and Americans of African descent, the Union of Black Episcopalians, finds the trailer for this show to be very offensive, religiously and racially denigrating; and regardless of the audience to which it may be intended we do not see ANY redeeming or affirming qualities. 
It denigrates Jesus, the faith AND our race and we take responsibility for our own request that this show be cancelled and not aired on the Cartoon Network or other outlets. We ask our members and supporters to join with us in making their voices heard through signing on to the petition at: http://chn.ge/1o8Hkvg or taking other direct action.

I have complete respect and admiration for this group, so I take their claim seriously.  One Facebook reply from Marcus Halley (an Episcopal priest), however, is very sound:

I will say this, as a person familiar with Aaron McGruder's work. He's a satirist, one who uses humor to raise some problematic or troubling paradigms to the forefront. The Black Community needs to engage very seriously our understanding of Jesus because there are some truly toxic theologies out there that are not liberating and salvific in the least - theologies that only reify slavocracy and disempowerment instead of reinterpreting the liberation theology proffered by Absalom Jones, Jarena Lee, Alexander Crummell, James Cone, Jacqueline Grant, and more. Satire may not be the tool the church wants, but it's a tool the church can use to start the conversation. Black Jesus is not a problem to be stopped, but an opportunity to be engaged. 
Instead of the Church advocating censorship (which violates Amendment 1 of the U.S. constitution as this does not present a "clear and present danger" to anything except our ostensible hegemony on Christological God-talk), what if we engaged the conversations that will be raised by "Black Jesus"? What if we allowed our own interpretations of Jesus to be challenged and thereby create opportunities for growth? What if we created spaces for the world to dialogue about the situations raised by Black Jesus instead of ending the conversation before it even begins? 
The Church cannot be threatened by this type of public discourse? It's happening out in our communities and if we want to reach this generation with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, perhaps our call is to enter the conversation, to find new and innovative ways of getting our message heard as broadly as "Black Jesus," and to be the truly welcome, open, and affirming Church that we are. 
If we're going to protest anything, let's protest the movies that come out of Hollywood or the miniseries that come on the "History" channel that write Black people out of a history we know we are in. Let's do that instead of being threatened by he work of a satirist whose very work is meant to challenge and offend, but in the end raise interesting points of engagement.

McGruder has been controversial on numerous occasions both for what happens in his comic strip/TV show The Boondocks, and for public statements he has made (see his Wikipedia page, to start).  But I can also say personally that The Boondocks’ comic strip has had profound moments of insight into American culture, and has raised or commented on important contemporary issues.

Watching the trailer (the sole evidence for boycotting the show), it’s hard for me to see clearly what the overarching message of the show will be:  especially with McGruder's satirical history.  While I’m not anxiously awaiting it’s premier, I’m more inclined to side with Halley’s point:  the Church might be better entering the conversation, rather than boycotting it.

UPDATE:  I wrote more the next day about this as well.


Lionel Deimel said...

I am always uncomfortable when people try to repress art, entertainment, or writing they have not personally experienced. Having seen a trailer does not qualify one as a critic. The program may be great or terrible. It may start out bad and get better, or the reverse. The call for cancellation in ignorance of what the show is really like is unprincipled.

tonip1 said...

I agree with you about not boycotting a book, movie or TV show without first hand knowledge of it (even if I will probably be on the side of the protesters.)

It is a sad fact of life that most people, particularly in our modern era, do not understand satire as an art form. Satire intends to offend in order to highlight and expose. I am familiar with and like Aaron Magruder's work and think he is indeed a brilliant satirist. I think I will watch at least one episode of this show just to see what the fuss is about.

The stereotypes and negative images that UBE decries are pervasive in our culture. Perhaps by painting them in broad brush strokes "Black Jesus" will help show how ridiculous they are. It will at least get people talking.

Kurt said...

I wrote more on "Black Jesus", and email/social media petitions in general, in my current post.