Lamorne Morris is woke

A man wearing a patterned black shirt against a cream background

The actor and Soho House West Hollywood member on his new Hulu series, Woke, and how his own perspective on racism has shifted over the years

By Corinna Burford    Above image: Lamorne Morris (Getty)     Thursday 10 September, 2020    Long read

In Woke, after a violent interaction with the San Francisco Police, Lamorne Morris’s character, Keef, is forced to see race – and his own Black identity – from a completely new perspective. Instead of being able to breeze through his day-to-day life, he now finds himself confronted by inequalities, ignorance and microaggressions at every turn. 

Based on the real story of cartoonist Keith Knight, the show follows Keef as he attempts to juggle his career, relationships and public persona, while also coming to terms with this new found ‘wokeness’. Using a mix of live action scenes, cartoons and the odd Spike Lee reference, the first season tackles everything from gentrification to police violence and the gig economy, peppering in plenty of self-aware jokes along the way.

Since finishing his role as Winston in New Girl in 2018, Morris had wanted to work on something with ‘more social impact’, he says, and Woke allowed him to do just that. ‘I always compare myself to Keef in the fact that I knew what was going on. I saw it on TV, I knew the injustices that were happening,’ says Morris. ‘But it never 100% hit me in the face… until it did.’

Here, Morris discusses making Woke, the uncanny timing of its release, and his own experiences with racial biases in Hollywood.
A man in a waistcoat and shirt holding a pen in the street

'A lot of times, I’m faced with those conflicting thoughts where you want to keep it light, you want to just be an actor. But when it gets down to business time, you start to see the systemic oppression'

The timing of Woke’s release, given the events of the past six months, is pretty remarkable. Was that on purpose?

‘We shot the pilot last year and then finished the show in February. So, it wasn’t as though we made the show based on what’s going on. But you’re right, it’s unfortunately very timely. Obviously, stuff like this has been going on in our country for centuries, and it’s still going on. So, no matter when you put a show out like this, I think it’s safe to say that it would be timely. What I do hope is that other shows will become more emboldened to make content based on the times.’

Your character, Keef, is made to see racism in a new way after his run-in with the police. Have you ever been confronted with a moment that made you realise, as Keef says, that ‘keeping it light’ wasn’t enough? 

‘For me, on a more surface level, I have been confronted with police, and it definitely made me feel helpless. Then, going back into my regular life, I did see things differently because you wake up like everybody else, pay your bills like everybody else, and eat the same foods as everybody else. But once you get in that car or walk down that street, that’s when it becomes, like, “Now I’m a little different”.

‘It affects you in your work, too. When you’re on set and they want you to say something that could be a little culturally biased, or when you’re negotiating a deal and you know that a White counterpart has been paid more for the same amount of work, it puts you in a conflicting position. It’s not just police brutality. It’s in the workplace, it’s in the entertainment business, it’s everywhere. 

‘So, a lot of times, I’m faced with those conflicting thoughts where you want to keep it light, you want to just be an actor. But when it gets down to business time, you start to see the systemic oppression. There are things that have been going on for so long that even when you ask for basic things like a barber on set, production may not understand why.’
A man in a yellow t-shirt and hat standing against a wall with lots of posters
Scenes from Woke (courtesy of Hulu)

Your character in Woke is based on the real artist Keith Knight. How much did you work with him on the character? 

‘It had always been a dream of mine to play someone. Thank god he’s here and I can have conversations with him. I learnt a lot from the guy, especially about his music preferences. Whenever I’m pulling from a character or trying to figure out who they are, I always ask myself what their playlist is and what they listen to. I believe a lot of times that music can be the soundtrack to our lives. For him, it was punk. I was shocked to hear that he was a rapper, too. He was in a hip-hop punk band, so Keith got bars.’

In New Girl, your character Winston was a cop, and I know that you co-wrote an episode of the show to address your feelings about it. Can you tell me about that?

‘So, I think it was in 2014. After the incident in Ferguson, Missouri, I would get these messages from fans online about why I was playing a Black cop with a cat named Ferguson and other funny stuff like that. But it got me thinking, “Maybe I don’t want to wear this uniform”. Liz Meriwether, the creator, decided that we should write something on it, and she asked me to do it. To be fair, there weren’t a lot of Black people in New Girl at the time as far as the crew goes, but the team was very much open to it and helped me out a lot.

‘Essentially, all I wanted to do was shed some light on what could possibly be going through a Black cop’s mind during a time like that. The episode was a little bit about protests, kind of mirroring what’s happening now. People are having these open, candid conversations with each other, and in the show my character and Coach’s character (Damon Wayans Jr) were talking with Nick (Jake Johnson) about our differences. I wanted the episode to explore those issues without being too in your face and too soap box-y. You start off with something light like New Girl, and then hopefully the conversation continues.’

Were there any things from working on Woke that made you notice or observe things differently in your own life?

‘A little bit. I always compare myself to Keith in the fact that I knew what was going on, but they never 100% hit me in the face, or affected me… until it did. Later on in life, I started to become a bit more activated – I realised that if I said something, people would listen.’ 
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