Hulu’s comedy series Woke is “based on a true story.” But while (sadly) trash cans voiced by Cedric the Entertainer don’t comment on racial and social issues in real life, the true element comes from real cartoonist and activist Keith Knight being the inspiration for the main character Keef (Lamorne Morris), an artist who avoids addressing race in his work until he is wrongfully assaulted by a police officer. There are a few other similarities that link Keith and Keef together, but the strongest connection is between Morris and his onscreen character. Keef and Morris’ shared experiences as Black men navigating how they are viewed and treated in the United States make the series almost too real.
Within the first ten minutes of the series premiere, “Rhymes with Broke,” multiple policemen pull their guns on Keef while he is stapling flyers, tackling him to the ground and handcuffing him until an officer realizes he isn’t the suspect they are looking for. This is Keef’s “woke moment” that sets the scene for the entire series.
“As a Black dude I didn’t have to draw from [Knight's] experience. I just drew from my own,” Morris told Refinery29 in early September. The actor says he has had a couple run-ins with the police, but the memory he channeled while filming the first episode was a police officer pinning him to a car when he was with a former girlfriend and friend.
“Long story short, I was harassed, thrown on a car, handcuffed while the older officer was teaching the younger officer the proper way to frisk somebody.” Morris says the officer, much like the cop in Woke, said there were reports of break-ins in the area and assumed Morris was the culprit, despite him having the keys to his car in his hand. “I pulled from that moment because I was super pissed off, like beyond pissed off to the point of tears for a while,” Morris says. “There’s nothing that I can do. It’s like someone just stripped you of your identity and then left.”
Morris says it was his personal experiences as a Black man, his talks with Knight, and the microaggressions he has faced in the entertainment industry that helped him become a dramatized version of Knight: Keef.
"There’s nothing that I can do. It’s like someone just stripped you of your identity and then left."
Lamorne MOrris, Woke
Knight co-created Woke, serves as executive producer, and wrote two episodes, including the pilot. Some scenes in the series are based on his life — Morris points out that Knight really was posting flyers when a police officer attacked him — but Keef isn’t an exact replica of the cartoon artist.
“I was gonna do a more extreme deep dive, but the director said, ‘Hey I just kind of want you to embody him a little bit. I don’t want this to be a direct impression of him because we don’t want the show to be about that,'" Morris explains.
One major difference between Keith and Keef is that the arrest scene is a wake-up call for Keef in the series, but in real life Knight was already making cartoons about police brutality when it happened to him, per his comments during the August Television Critics Press Tour. The real Knight’s realization actually happened in college when a white student was upset that Black authors were included on the syllabus for an American literature class. Knight had read white authors his entire life and had never been bothered by it. Morris was affected when he heard this instance of white privilege in action, and while Keef has a different path, Knight's college story informed the character.
“I was pulling from that energy because the way the cops treated me, a nice sweet guy passing out flyers, and the way they put their guns away and allowed my roommate — who’s a drug dealer — to push them, poke them, provoke them, yell at them, get in their face and they did nothing, it's obviously a lot like what we’re seeing today," says Morris.
Morris has a similar experience to Knight in that college course, too, when he was 18 filming a video about healthy eating. He says remembers the director repeatedly shouting at him, the only Black man on set, to smile. His white co-stars were not instructed to smile; they were grimacing. He later processed what the director's microaggression meant.
"I started to realize later on in life with other photo shoots or different things I would have to do, they would always want me to be the one smiling a lot. They want you to be non-threatening because people get threatened when they see Black faces. I found myself subconsciously smiling a lot when you would see white people walking you would just smile because you wanted them to feel safe. I wasn’t doing it consciously. It was just out of reaction based off of certain experiences. If a Black person is having a bad day or they’re angry, it’s a threat as opposed to just being human because we all have these emotions but sometimes with me I felt like I had to mask those emotions to get along and it stems from that moment."
After that, Morris says he started to notice other patterns.
"You hear it a lot in your career: They like you because you’re nonthreatening. I would hear that often in my life and I never really dug deep into what that was and some people call it the magical Negro thing," he added.
Despite years of racist and offensive interactions, Morris was still moved by the emotional scenes toward the end of Woke's first season. In the finale, “Blue Lies Matter,” Keef meets with the policeman who he encountered in the first episode because he is being sued for tarnishing the cop’s image. The officer tries to intimidate Keef by threatening that their encounter could’ve turned out a lot worse.
“That stopped me in my tracks a little bit,” says Morris. “While performing I kind of checked out of character and just went into ‘oh shit this could be how it really is sometimes.’ And if that is how it is, that’s scary. That’s dark.”