Revisiting ‘Legends of Chamberlain Heights’

The quickly-canceled Comedy Central show was raucous, ridiculous, and controversial—and exactly right for the current moment.

Back in 2016, a controversial TV show called Legends of Chamberlain Heights debuted on Comedy Central. It was billed as “an urban animated series mixing raucous comedy and social commentary,” and there was nothing else like it on television (with the possible exception of The Boondocks, the once-cancelled cartoon that’s scheduled to reboot later this year). Legends’ jokes were scandalous, its plotlines absurd, and its racial politics nothing short of revolutionary. As you might expect, such a series was destined to be short-lived. Legends lasted only two seasons before network executives pulled the plug. But over the span of 20 episodes, it told a story that had never been told on TV before—one with an eerie relevance for the present moment. 

Created by former UCLA basketball players Josiah Johnson (who is Black) and Quinn Hawking (who is white), Legends is a foul-mouthed celebration of Blackness as well as the irrepressible spirit of the underdog. It follows three young basketball players—Grover and Jamal, who are Black, along with their white frenemy Milk—who are convinced they’re destined to be superstars despite all evidence to the contrary. Their hometown of Chamberlain Heights, predominantly Black and working class, is in constant turmoil, and each episode offers a comical yet brutally honest look at how race shapes daily life in the United States.

As entertainment, Legends is superb. Some of its storylines definitely push the bounds of good taste—the one about the Bill Cosby sex tape comes to mind—but creators Johnson and Hawking had an earnest sense of self-awareness that prevented the show from spiraling into cheap shock-jockery. There’s also an unsettling prescience to much of the series: the first episode of Season 2 (which aired in 2017) features Kobe Bryant’s helicopter crashing in the middle of a massive citywide protest that police attempt to quash with gleeful brutality. 

Although the entirety of Legends’ filmography is shorter than a single season of The Simpsons, the series covers an astonishing range of social issues. Police brutality is an especially frequent topic—Legends may hold the unofficial title for references to Ferguson in an animated comedy series. It’s also full of pointed references to the stark contrasts in how police treat white protestors compared to Black ones. In the series’ final episode, the three boys are sent to prison after “resisting arrest” when police officers mistake them for the robbers of a donut shop. As Grover and Jamal are beaten mercilessly with batons, Milk films the arrest while shouting insults at the cops:

“My hands ain’t up, why don’t you shoot?”

The cops respond: “What are you, crazy? This is America, you have rights.”

If you watch that episode today, you can’t help but think of the armed white militia members who stormed state capitols in tantrums over pandemic-related closures, and how they were greeted by phalanxes of stoic police officers—many of whom would later brutally beat Black and brown protestors who were in the streets to call for an end to police brutality and blank checks for war toys. Other episodes of Legends use humor to spotlight injustices from the past. After the boys are shocked to discover the school’s basketball court has been turned into a swimming pool, their coach explains:

“We always had a pool, motherfuckers! Part of Reagan’s ‘Sink or Swim’ Initiative. We just ain’t used it since the Class of ’88 drowned.”

The initiative might be fictional, but it’s true that many Black kids don’t know how to swim, largely due to the fact that segregation made most pools white-only spaces, and “Sink or Swim” is a funny and brutal summation of Reagan’s policy of “benign neglect” toward Black Americans. Yet while Legends is full of history-flavored Easter eggs—for example, when the school holds a dance to which girls are supposed to invite boys, it’s named for Shirley Chisholm instead of Sadie Hawkins—the show never takes on a didactic, Schoolhouse Rock vibe. 

Instead, Legends makes its moral arguments with the power of absurdist humor. In an episode titled “Flags of Our Confederate Fathers,” the boys are taken by Milk’s stepfather to a Civil War reenactment. They soon grow tired of playing “games” like Catch-the-Runaway-Slave, and burn the entire camp to the ground by inducing a horse to have explosive farts. In another episode, Grover’s long-absent father re-appears and insists that he be allowed to stay in his former home. Grover responds by saying:

“You can’t just come in here, feed us some bullshit, and expect us to believe you. Who do you think you is, the President?”

That’s a less-than-subtle jab at Barack Obama, who had been vocal in his criticisms of Black fathers since before taking office. Sellout politicians aren’t the only targets of Legends’ ire, though. The show also mocks the faux-woke posturing of capitalist corporations with delightful frequency. After a local energy company with the somewhat on-the-nose name of White Power cuts off electricity to Chamberlain Heights—a regular occurrence in many Black neighborhoods, even during deadly heat waves—a crowd of people gather to confront the company’s CEO. He addresses the crowd by saying:

“We are working to remedy the rolling blackouts, and we value each and every one of you, and I can assure you that our top priority is your satisfaction. And to show you how much, we brought you chicken! Look at all those buckets over there!”

The uprising that ensues is a cathartic one, to say the least. 

Sometimes, the themes of race, culture, economics, justice, and history are woven tight enough to make your brain’s blood vessels pop if you think about them too long. For example, when Grover is mocked for having out-of-date shoes, he sets his heart on getting a pair of gold-plated Shackles. (His sneaker thirst is inspired by a commercial that features slaves on a cotton plantation receiving the shoes from heaven and then dunking on their white owner.) Unable to buy a pair through conventional channels—Grover gets mocked by a white store clerk for assuming a random Black kid could dream of owning such coveted kicks—the boys embark on a day-long adventure to acquire them. The Warriors-themed episode ends with Grover finally getting his hands on the Shackles… only for his prize to be confiscated by police officers who apprehend the boys for walking around at night.

Here lies the genius of Legends: It educates without overtly appearing to be educational. This is true for white viewers in particular, many of whom may be shocked at the idea of cops stealing a prized possession from a helpless kid. And while Black fans praised the show for depicting a world that isn’t often shown on TV—more on that later—and just being funny as hell in general, Legends is also clever at delivering deep cuts of Black history. These often come via conversations between Malik, Grover’s militant younger brother and Black Power advocate, and their older brother Montreal, a washed-up basketball star and weed enthusiast. One memorable scene features Malik reading his older brother an entire stack of books from the 20th century’s leading Black intellectuals after Montreal is rendered catatonic by his first dab rip. This is all to say that Legends is about as enjoyable and accessible as an education can get.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of the Minneapolis police, and the ongoing uprisings across the nation that have ensued, there’s been a resounding call for Americans (especially white ones) to educate themselves about the realities of racism. For nearly a month now, the New York Times bestseller list (which conveys the most prestige) as well as the Amazon bestseller list (which conveys the most money) have been dominated by books about racism, like “How to Be an Antiracist” and “Me and White Supremacy.” Other people have turned to music, as evidenced by the huge spike in subscriptions to Spotify’s Black Lives Matter playlists. Streaming video services have also seen increased interest in Black stories, with many promoting new collections of movies and TV shows featuring Black creators.  

This is an encouraging sign regardless of your opinion on the specific things people are reading, listening to, or watching. However, it’s fair to say some cynicism about the ways in which people are “educating themselves” is justified. For example, many people have questioned why White Fragility, a self-flagellating tome written in HR-ese by a white diversity consultant who depicts herself as a “whiteness whistleblower,” in the words of the Washington Post, has sat atop both the NYT and Amazon bestseller lists for weeks. There’s a not-entirely-misplaced concern that many white American liberals (and leftists!) are making the Racism Conversation about their own guilt and desire for personal growth, which often has a negative impact not only on individual people of color, but on the effort to eliminate structural racism as well. 

Many white people, even those with the best of intentions, have a tendency to put themselves at the center of any conversation about race. As Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race, wrote in the Guardian, it’s all too easy for a discussion about marginalization to devolve into a navel-gazing soliloquy “about the feelings of white people, the expectations of white people, the needs of white people.” 

Legends of Chamberlain Heights rejects this notion with the casual ferocity of Joel Embiid swatting away an ill-advised layup. From the pilot episode to the series finale, the show’s creators take every available opportunity to emphasize that Black characters are the protagonists and Black issues are the core focus. White people may inhabit the world of Legends—and their choices might affect it in many ways—but the story is not about them. 

This message is conveyed with remarkable clarity through the character of Milk. In the series’ second episode, the boys’ basketball coach tells him, “White boy, you’re only here ‘cause your stepdad bought us the jerseys.” And while Milk repeatedly, passionately, and uselessly renounces his whiteness—bringing to mind a recent viral video—his insistence that his embrace of Black culture conveys secondhand Blackness is met with consistent scorn and laughter. In Legends, Black characters may casually toss around the n-word, but every time Milk tries the same, he gets a sharp slap across the head.

“We told you, Milk,” says Grover at one point, “Until your white ass prove you got some Black in you, that word is on the banned substance list. Got it, my n*****?” The show does not indulge any Ben Shapiro-esque whining that this is a “double standard,” or an explanation of why the word is banned for white people: It assumes its audience understands, and doesn’t care if it doesn’t. 

It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that this refusal to indulge white audiences was why Legends’ run was so short. The show has a 4.6/10 rating on IMDb, and a quick look through the numbers illustrates how polarizing the show was: 33.4 percent of reviewers rated it 10/10, while 31.2 percent gave it 1/10. Reviewers complained that “[the] characters are just pandering to the ghetto” with their “racially charged supposed-jokes,” which “makes me want to spontaneously conbust [sic].” 

While some critical viewers also bemoaned the quality of the animation and/or voice acting, the fact that they also felt it necessary to make unfavorable comparisons between Legends and South Park—to which many of the same complaints about technical quality could apply—it’s fairly clear that the main beef was with Legends’ focus on Blackness. As the ancient Twitter proverb puts it, “I am feel uncomfortable when we are not about me?”

To be fair, there are plenty of legitimate criticisms to make of Legends. It often veers toward misogyny, for one thing. Female characters tend to be both peripheral and objectified. The two most prominent women in Legends are Grover’s love interest Cindy, whose presence is always announced with a gratuitous booty shot, and Milk’s mother, whose most notable qualities are her “big-ass titties” and insatiable appetite for sex. There’s an undercurrent of ableism throughout the show as well, with more than a few jokes made at the expense of characters like “Jank Eye Jarvis” and “Special Ted.” Plus, the Asian, Latino, and Muslim characters in Legends are often depicted with stereotypical accents and appearances that make The Simpsons’ Apu or South Park’s Mr. Kim look like paragons of wokeness. 

Legends doesn’t deserve a free pass for these shortcomings, yet we should also acknowledge that (well-grounded) allegations of misogyny and insensitivity have long been used to discredit Black art. Take the 1990s hysteria over gangsta rap, for example. In her 1994 essay “Sexism and Misogyny: Who Takes the Rap?,” the radical Black feminist scholar bell hooks made a persuasive argument that white audiences who claimed to be appalled by the crassness of Black music and movies were actually more concerned with “young white consumers [utilizing] Black popular culture to disrupt bourgeois values.” (For example, hooks recalled how her interview with rapper Ice Cube for Spin Magazine was “cut to nothing” after editors saw how their conversation focused on “the political, spiritual, and emotional self-determination of Black people” instead of simply castigating Ice Cube for his misogynistic lyrics.) This doesn’t diminish the real and significant issues present in cultural creations like Legends. But it does mean that we shouldn’t discard “problematic” Black art without considering the context in which it’s made. 

In the case of Legends, that context is fascinating. The show exists as a bridge from the Obama Era to the Age of Trump—the first season is tinged with a wry realization that the country’s first Black president had done little to address the structural racism that has undergirded the United States since its founding, while the second season basks in the absurdity of a white supremacist TV star hitting the turbo button on all of the country’s worst tendencies. Through it all, there’s a deep sense of both resignation and resilience: America’s shit is fucked up on the most fundamental level, but what can we do except fight like hell and try to make our world better?

No great shift in popular consciousness has ever come solely from somber proclamations and well-meaning webinars. We need to have fun, too, and we need to broaden the range of stories that get told. Legends tells a story that has been overlooked in mainstream pop culture for far too long; the world could use a lot more cartoon adventures of working class Black kids that don’t give a fuck about playing the respectability politics game. And as Legends showed during its should-have-been-longer run, there’s an undeniable demand for this kind of tale—a demand that has always been present, but lately is becoming harder for gatekeepers to ignore.

They’ll keep trying, though, regardless of the airy proclamations made on social media and the empty symbolic gestures that too often pass for progress. Many in the media and entertainment industries are quick to shout “reverse discrimination” whenever the slightest effort is made to encourage Black artists. Audiences can—and should—demand more shows like Legends, but contrary to popular belief, the customer doesn’t always get what they want if it makes the supplier uncomfortable.

If you’re white, Legends will almost certainly make you uncomfortable at some points. If you’re Black, the show might have a different effect: it might make you proud, curious, or just relieved that a story made purely and unapologetically for you managed “to go league,” as the characters are fond of saying. Regardless of your background, Legends will make you laugh like hell, and that might be the best thing about it.

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