Racially Ignited, a Magical World Is Uncanny
‘The Wizard of Watts’ Mirrors Debate Over Police Brutality
By Brooks Barnes
LOS ANGELES — “The Wizard of Watts,” a coming animated television musical, was conceived two years ago as a big, fat gob of raucous entertainment wrapped around a nugget of racial commentary.
Then, with the musical’s animation already far underway, Ferguson, Mo., became a flash point, starting a national debate about race, overzealous policing and the need for officers to wear body cameras. Then came the phrase “I Can’t Breathe” and the broader protest against police brutality.
Suddenly, “The Wizard of Watts,” with its devastated black neighborhoods and army of pigs, took on greater weight. How the musical will be received by viewers at a racially charged cultural moment is anyone’s guess. But when it arrives on Cartoon Network’s after-hours Adult Swim block on Saturday, “The Wizard of Watts” will at the very least become one of those eerie instances of art accidentally mirroring life.
The primary villain in the Magical Land of Oz-Watts, where the story takes place, is a vicious pig clad in riot gear. Water does not neutralize this Oz villain; instead this baddie gets melted with a camcorder. “Oh, no! Not an irrefutable visual record of my illegal actions!” the anthropomorphized pig wails as he turns to mush at the musical’s climax.
Even Carl Jones, the director of “The Wizard of Watts” and one of its writers, was surprised at hitting such a cultural bull’s-eye.
“I take pride in tackling things with my gloves off, but animation takes such a long time to produce that you usually don’t end up being all that current,” he said.
Mr. Jones had noticed on social media how African-Americans were increasingly using cellphone cameras as “protection from police, like as a weapon,” he said.
“Nobody was talking about it and so I decided we had to take it on,” he said.
Mr. Jones, 42, fits into a loose group of rising black writers and directors finding crossover success with comedy that doubles as biting racial commentary. Aaron McGruder (“The Boondocks”) has “Black Jesus,” an Adult Swim series set in modern-day Compton, Calif. Issa Rae has gained notoriety for her web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl.” Justin Simien’s searing film “Dear White People” was an art house hit last year.
But Mr. Jones’s style can be particularly over the top.
“I think there is a racial temperature in this country that has reached a boiling point, and the more we as artists can shine a light and make people talk about it, the better off we are going to all be,” he said.
“The Wizard of Watts” is a special episode of “Black Dynamite,” an Adult Swim series run by Mr. Jones that lovingly parodies blaxploitation cinema. Character voices in the special are provided by the likes of Tyler, the Creator, of the rap group Odd Future, and the singer Erykah Badu. “Black Dynamite,” adapted from the 2009 independent film of the same name, has sharp edges: Now in its second season, the show, set in the 1970s, stars a heroic brothel owner who runs an orphanage from the same location — the Whorephanage.
Overflowing with sexual imagery and profane language (often bleeped by Cartoon Network), “Black Dynamite” has featured an albino gorilla named Honky Kong and young black people who discover that slavery existed only after watching the mini-series “Roots.”
The musical special begins with the pimp hero, Black Dynamite, taking a rare day off. But without his muscle on display in the neighborhood, police start beating residents, who respond with violence. (The thrashings, one character says excitedly, “make me feel like burning down my own community!”) Black Dynamite investigates, gets hit with a brick and floats off to Oz-Watts.
There, the pigs terrorize a community of Rodney Munchkings. Trying to get home, Black Dynamite sets off not on the yellow brick road but on a trash-strewn Malcolm X Boulevard. Cue the drug-addicted winged monkeys, a Tin Woman looking for male genitalia and a chicken-and-waffles musical number.
“Basically, I set out to create a blacker version of ‘The Wiz’ and this is how it ended up,” Mr. Jones said, breaking into a hearty laugh.
Some viewers will find “The Wizard of Watts” in reckless bad taste — “Fat Albert” this is not. It’s not even “South Park” or “The Boondocks,” the controversy-courting series about two black boys in a white suburb that Mr. Jones once helped produce.
But to recoil at the vulgarity would miss the point, said Jon Steingart, a producer of the musical. “What Carl does is fair-minded, it’s smart, and, as a fan, I don’t see enough of that in comedy,” said Mr. Steingart, a co-founder of Ars Nova, a Manhattan nonprofit that nurtures emerging playwrights, comics and musicians.
He added, “Carl could write a much angrier story — he grew up in very difficult circumstances — but he understands that his viewers are predominantly white young males.” Aimed at men 18 to 34, Adult Swim has an audience that is about two-thirds male and two-thirds white, according to Nielsen data.
Mr. Jones grew up in Fayetteville, N.C., which he called Fayette-nam, a portmanteau comparing parts of that city to a Vietnam war zone. A high-school dropout, Mr. Jones became interested in comedy as a youngster by listening to Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor on cassette tapes.
His break in the entertainment industry came in 2010, with the animated TV special “Freaknik: The Musical,” a comedic skewering of the rowdy Freaknik, an Atlanta festival for black college students that no longer takes place.
“Music as a device,” he said, “gives you so much replay value. These issues, sadly, are not going away.”