‘Woke’ Director Mo Marable On Why His Hulu Show Will Always Be Timely, And His Love For HBO’s ‘Watchmen’

Hulu’s Woke is directed and executive produced by Maurice “Mo” Marable. The show’s in good comedic hands, given that Mo has multiple Brockmire seasons under his belt and has helmed episodes of It’s Always Sunny In Philadephia, Insecure, Lodge 49, The Last O.G., and frankly, too many more shows to name here. With Woke, though, Mo mines plenty of laughs from reality while adding elements of the surreal to underscore how absurd (and unavoidable) the Black experience in America can truly be.

Woke bases itself upon the work of artist Keith Knight. His likeness, Keef, is portrayed by Lamorne Morris (New Girl) as an up-and-coming Black cartoonist who wants to “keep it light” in terms of his art. In other words, he’d prefer not to have have his Toast -N- Butter characters (literally toast, butter, and so on) dig into the deeper issues that plague people of color in America. Yet one day, Keef receives a rude awakening while finding himself pinned to the ground by police officers who mistake him for a suspect. The experience transforms his perspective, as do the new voices that hope to spur him into action, which plays out in both straight-up funny and tragicomic ways.

Mo was cool enough to discuss the Hulu series with us, especially how so much of it parallels situations current and past. We also talked about how, in Mo’s words, HBO’s Watchmen “was the Blackest show in America,” and how scary it feels to get back to work in Hollywood, given our current situation.

So, there’s actually a Covid-19 reference in Woke. Talk about surreal.

You know, that was trippy because we wrote that before the COVID thing hit, but we didn’t write that line yet, and it was done in the moment. I think it had started to hit the news, but that was when it was just this thing way over somewhere else.

No one fully grasped at that point how massive the virus would become. When did you film that scene?

We filmed that scene in late February. Yeah, nobody knew then. We were shooting in Vancouver, and Vancouver has a very high Chinese population, and I have to say that community, when they’re traveling, have been wearing masks for a very long time. So, the idea of the mask and that something was happening, that was kind-of showing up in Vancouver but not as a disease, but just as a conversation, so we just tried to find a way to play with it.

Before I watched Woke and had only seen the trailer, I immediately thought of Atlanta because both blend magical realism with keeping it real about the Black experience in America. I learned that the two shows stand separately, but how would you explain what Woke does differently?

That is probably the best question I’ve had in a long time, so thank you for stumping me, Kim… Woke is a show that has political undertones but also is a real comedy because we want people to laugh, and we want people to think. And it’s got talking trashcans.

Don’t forget about that wisecracking ink pen. He’s pretty cool.

I don’t know too many shows that have talking trashcans, so I feel like we definitely check that box, and you know, as an artist and a filmmaker of color, we don’t get the opportunity often to do things that are magical or surreal or odd alternatives. Prior to nowadays, “alternatives” was more about attitude and not necessarily a full, weird internal experience, so that’s where I think our show is different.

There are a lot of people who, like Keef, want to “keep it light” with everything we’re going through right now. How do you read that statement from him?

I think when you hear, especially from people of color, “I just wanna keep it light,” it’s hard to say what’s in that individual’s heart. But I’ve definitely been in that space at times, where I do just wanna keep it light, and I just don’t wanna deal with the heaviness of what’s going on. And the truth is that, for all of us out here in the world, there’s so much negative happening right now that it can be overwhelming. And it’s it own bit of trauma, so sometimes you need to step back and shut it out and find joy elsewhere. So I understand that moment, but I think in Keef’s situation, I think he really believes it. Like, “There’s somebody else who does that, somebody else does the heavy stuff, somebody who does the sports stuff, I just wanna keep it light, I don’t wanna be put in the box, like just because I’m Black, I have to say something political.” I get that. I think that’s honest, and that’s real.

And then Keef receives a jolt, and he couldn’t avoid waking up.

When something like this happens to you, it activates him, and he has to say something about it because when you don’t you’re not really an artist. I can’t even remember the quote, but Nina Simone has talked about that. Like, it is your job, as an artist, to basically be political.

Unfortunately, it’s not much of a stretch to imagine that police would behave as absurdly as they do in Woke. This year, Black Lives Matter protested the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. This follows protests over the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Terence Crutcher, and more. Was this show always bound to be timely?

You know, the sad reality is that this show would have been timely 30, 40, 10 years ago, and 5 months ago, and unless there’s a major shift, it will be timely 10 years from now. The events that have been happening, and that we’ve been watching on TV — the killing of George Floyd, I believe, is one of those rare moments in history where everybody’s in their house. There’s a pandemic going on, people are not working, and everybody feels at siege. The country’s already divided, and so when that happens, I think people just lost it, and it was one killing too many at that moment.

People are exhausted and frightened this year but still feel compelled to protest.

The truth is that this has been a recurring nightmare for Black men and Black people for decades, and I think no matter when this show came out, there was gonna be somebody dying at the hands of police brutality.

You talked about this going on for so many decades, which reminds me of how it took HBO’s Watchmen for a lot of people to learn about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

Oh, you just brought up one of my favorite shows of all time! I have so much respect for Damon Lindelof. I mean, first of all, that show was so good, and it really got the heart of it. This is the truth. I’ve heard about the Tulsa Race Massacre and Black Wall Street and all that, but I didn’t know all the details because no one really teaches that to you. You don’t really hear about it. And man, the idea that the first superhero was a person of color and why he chose to do that? I once read an article about how billionaires being these vigilantes doesn’t make any sense. They can buy the courts, they can change the law. They can do that. Real superheroes come from marginalized communities.

Lindelof pulled off radical feats. He rewrote a Black character into history, rather than the other way around, which was the opposite of how the Tulsa went down.

Yes, that’s why he made Hooded Justice Black, and to talk about reparations and to talk about what that does to a community, to nations. To talk about systemic racism. All of it was so pitch-perfect and beautiful at the same time. My favorite episode was in black-and-white, where [Angela] experiences her grandfather’s life, and I just thought it was the Blackest show in America.

I still marvel at how Doctor Manhattan was just hiding out in a Black man’s body.

Yeah, who’s gonna look at the Black guy and think that he’s the most brilliant person in the entire galaxy?

We do need Manhattan to fix things, but I’m still fixated on all the timely parallels in Woke. Like with one of Keef’s friends, who is white. He hasn’t done something truly reprehensible, like Kyle Rittenhouse, but the show illustrates how white men are treated differently by police, as opposed to Jacob Black and Keef.

I hope it’s a topic of conversation — the idea of how people treat people of color and people not of color totally different. You know, how you just stated. It’s so evident, it’s so real. I remember being in high school, and there were kids who were so drunk, seriously drunk, and it was in a Pizza Hut parking lot. The cops rolled up on them, and all they did was decide who was not that drunk and let that person drive home.

Wow. That reminds me of a recent Twitter thread of police encounters experienced by white people. Let’s just say they lacked confrontation.

Yeah, me and my friends were sitting across the street and were just stunned. And so you look at that, and then you think about [Rayshard Brooks] who got shot and killed in Atlanta. Why didn’t they let him walk it off? He’s human. He isn’t committing a serious crime, he’s truly not. But the idea that fear of skin color is enough to sentence somebody to murder is crazy.

Woke also touches upon people who launch protests about their own pet causes while looking past police brutality.

That was a tough episode. A lot had to happen on that bus, and diving into the idea that people of color are not always worth saving, right? Somebody could kill a tiger in Africa, and the whole world is up in arms. Somebody kills a person of color, and it’s a news cycle for a week. We wanted to touch on that hypocrisy, to touch on “Who is humanity for? Who’s allowed to have empathy? Who do we give our empathy to, and why? And why not to people of color? Why is it that Black folks don’t get to be human?”

We’re almost out of time, but beyond Woke, you’ve got several directing gigs in the near future, for NBC, Disney, Hulu, and FX. How’s the timing looking on those in regard to the pandemic?

I call it the “Wild Wild West” out there right now. Nobody knows how this is all gonna work it, but I will say that I’m working on an NBC show right now from home, and I’ll shoot that in early October, and then I’ll follow that immediately by shooting for NBC. And then hopefully, everything else will fall into place in the new year. But it’s a little scary going back to work. There’s no vaccine, and I don’t know if I’d take the vaccine in the first batch anyway. So it’s gonna be different.

Putting everything in a bubble might be difficult. Tyler Perry is doing it, though. He’s doing better than The Batman production, I’ll say that much.

Now, that freaked me out last night. I was like, “Whaaaaat?”

Oh, it’s scary. When the leading man gets it, what do you do? Damn.

How many people are now infected by that, and how did he get it? I gotta go back and read the story, but that scares me. It makes me nervous about the shows I’m working on, but I will say that, so far, all the protocols that have been laid out to me by NBC have been really strong. I believe that I have to be tested every day in order to work. And… thank you for giving Woke a voice.

Hulu’s ‘Woke’ streams on Wednesday, September 9.