This Comedy Duo Dares to Turn Malcolm X Into a Cartoon
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because even icons have pasts.
By Keith Murphy
“Our first question was … how do you make a cartoon?” says Kenan Weaver, laughing as he tries to explain the process — and chutzpah — behind crafting an animated comedy based on one of the most revered and polarizing civil rights figures of the 20th century. It’s an unseasonably warm fall afternoon, and the 33-year-old comedian and his partner, fellow stand-up comic Darren Williams, 31, are having lunch at the Tsion Café in New York’s Harlem neighborhood.
There is connective reasoning as to why Weaver and Williams, who met in 2015 at an open-mic comedy night, asked to meet at this Sugar Hill neighborhood hangout. Back in the 1930s and ’40s, the St. Nicholas Avenue establishment was the legendary Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, serving Southern comfort food by day and hot jazz at night. “Malcolm X was a waiter here,” says Williams, referring to the Nation of Islam minister turned human rights activist. “X” happens to be the main character in Little Red, the writing duo’s new television project backed by the Emmy-winning animation studio Titmouse Inc.
The adult-themed cartoon follows the exploits of young Malcolm Little, newly arrived in New York City in the waning days of the Harlem Renaissance, and his comic foil (and fellow dishwasher at Jimmy’s) John Sanford. Comedy aficionados will recognize Sanford as the iconic Redd Foxx, the influential funnyman and star of the hit ’70s sitcom Sanford and Son. Before Malcolm Little became Malcolm X, he was also known as “Detroit Red,” and Foxx went by “Chicago Red” — so named for their crimson hair.
Decades later, on Feb. 21, 1965, Malcolm X would be gunned down while giving a speech at Washington Heights’ Audubon Ballroom. And there lies the potential blowback for Little Red. Weaver and Williams are attempting to re-envision — and animate — a deified martyr for comic effect, which some may find blasphemous. “But our show isn’t Malcolm X after he converted to Islam in prison and tries to save his people,” Williams explains. Weaver interjects: “We have the utmost respect for the legacies of both Malcolm and Redd Foxx.”
And then there’s Titmouse, a white-owned studio producing a series about a radical Black figure who advocated segregation from what he deemed America’s racist power structure. Yet Titmouse CEO Chris Prynoski isn’t put off. “It definitely crosses your mind that you are dealing with an important person in history,” he says. “But I trust the vision of Kenan and Darren. I really believe that they have a good handle on the tone.”
If you are doing something worthwhile and fearless, somebody is going to be upset.
Pumkin Escobar, comedian and producer
For comedian and producer Pumkin Escobar, who has frequently booked Williams at his Harlem comedy club, Little Red fits the mold of projects being led by a new generation of risk-taking Black humorists. “I think you can place [Williams and Weaver] amongst people like Donald Glover, Wyatt Cenac — who got his start writing for The Daily Show — and Robin Thede,” he says. “Little Red is going to upset somebody. But if you are doing something worthwhile and fearless, somebody is going to be upset.”
There is a serendipitous connection between Williams and Weaver. Both turned their backs on what they describe as soul-sucking corporate jobs in IT and business analysis to make a run at comedy. The punchline? They both grew up in religious households and were restricted from watching comedies like The Simpsons, Martin and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
Raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, Williams was ostracized by his family when he told his parents he wanted out. Drawing from that experience, he took to the stand-up stage, explaining, “It’s always fun to joke about things you believe in.”
Weaver admits that it was his sizable ego that pushed him to test his brand of observational, deadpan, racially fueled humor in front of audiences. “Netflix would air all of these stand-up comedy specials, and I would watch them with my friends and say, ‘I can do that.’ It got to the point where I was becoming a hater,” he says, chuckling.
When Williams told his future collaborator about his wild idea for a comedy featuring a pre–Malcolm X, Weaver was floored. “I had just read Redd Foxx’s biography and he’s talking about Malcolm X,” he recalls. “And I go, ‘I bet you the two of them would make a great cartoon!’”
But animation was an alien world to Williams and Weaver — until a chance encounter in 2016 with Mike Allen. The developer of the pilot for the Disney Channel’s Kim Possible gave them a road map and got them started on storyboarding. Then, knowing they needed a big name to attach to Little Red, they reached out to comedian and social activist Dick Gregory to voice one of the characters. “He loved it!” Weaver marvels, only Gregory passed away in August before he could step inside the recording booth.
Undaunted, they pitched Little Red to several animation houses and got a surprise call back from Titmouse. Since then, the industry buzz surrounding the off-the-wall project is getting louder. Netflix, HBO, Apple, Fox and Cartoon Network have all expressed interest, though nothing has been inked.
“If you talk about what your favorite comedy is, it’s usually something based on adversity … on truth,” Williams says. “That’s why Black folks make the best comedians.” As if on cue, Weaver cuts in: “I once bought a Cadillac in the same month I got laid off from a job. Now, that’s Black.”
Watching these friends riff, it’s like they’ve walked off the pages of the Little Red story bible. “Armed with nothing but wits, charm and the art of the hustle …,” begins the introduction to Malcolm and Redd, “two ambitious, unapologetically Black men.” In a surreal moment, it’s hard to see where the creators leave off and their creations begin.
- Keith Murphy, Keith “Murph” Murphy spars with brazen hip-hop moguls, Hollywood rebels, revered thespians, redemption-seeking pugilists and more. His work has appeared in VIBE, The New York Post, Billboard magazine, Essence and The Root. He’s a frequent commentator on CNN, Fox News, VH1 and A&E Biography.Contact Keith Murphy