25 Years After Friday, Remembering John Witherspoon, the Perfectly Imperfect Black Dad

With his slightly confused oldhead squint, Pops reminded me — and many others — of our own fathers

Photo: Shareif Ziyadat/Getty Images

The night we lost John Witherspoon, I heard the news from the woman sitting next to me. Her name was Regina King.

A bit of explanation here. Soon after HBO’s Watchmen premiered last October, I interviewed King onstage at a San Francisco event. There was no Wi-Fi in the theater, so the fact that she had arrived a bit late came without context; toward the end of the event, she dropped that context on us like a squid from the sky. “I wanna say a little bit of the reason why we started late,” she told the audience, mostly Black and Brown creatives who had come to hear her speak about her role as Angela Abar. “I gotta give him a shoutout.”

Her voice trailed off, then she turned back to me. “I found out before we came in,” she said, her voice cracking, “and you were so wonderful holding things down… but John Witherspoon passed away today.”

A muted chorus of groans rippled through the crowd. For a moment, I could sense all of us engaged in the same mental upload, Witherspoon’s many indelible roles flashing into our consciousness. Pops in Friday, a friend to the undead in Vampire in Brooklyn, wild-ass Grandad in The Boondocks. A fermata descended; no one in the theater said a word, our grief reverberating in a way that’s simply impossible to sense through tweet threads or IG Live.

“Yeah,” she said, “that’s a hit. It’s a big hit.”

“Hit” is an understatement. Losing Spoon meant losing one of the few artists still committed to a vision of the visceral, profane silliness of the Black working class. John Witherspoon was a nigga, our nigga, and I mean that in all the best ways.

With his slightly confused oldhead squint, Pops reminded me of my own father, and not just because of his defecatory power. While they’re both wise, kindhearted men, they’re also — and I say this with all the love in my heart — fucking rough.

It might’ve seemed to the outside world that the archetypal sameness of Witherspoon’s characters — the loud, sometimes disgusting, but deeply principled baby boomer — reflected a lack of what the high-art-minded would call “virtuosic” talent. But his commitment to the bit was a brilliant rendition of the jittery physicality, lived-in foolishness, and spot-on Uncle-speak that other comedians couldn’t manage without flailing into self-parody. His act required true awareness, and that fleshed-out understanding flowed through his body, from his kinetic improv to his scrunchy, dexterous face.

Peep the beginning of the Boomerang scene where Mr. Witherspoon’s Mr. Jackson wears a mushroom-pattern shirt to Thanksgiving dinner, and then explains to Marcus (Eddie Murphy) how to coooordinate. Belt, jacket liner, and as he breaks down his ensemble’s mycological motif, the tilt of his head reveals a satisfied, almost perverse, pride. Marcus might be clowning him, but the shade doesn’t land — because he’s eating this shit up.

But before Mr. Jackson, before Grandad, the image of Witherspoon that first flashed into my head when I heard the news was him as Pops, spraying air freshener after destroying the bathroom in the 1995 classic Friday. Even 25 years later, there’s not a self-respecting Black man in America who can’t hit the exact tenor of Pops’ “Craig!” when he calls for his son. With his slightly confused oldhead squint, Pops reminded me of my own father, and not just because of his defecatory power. While they’re both wise, kindhearted men, they’re also — and I say this with all the love in my heart — fucking rough. Eating cereal outta salad bowls and then nagging you for finishing the dregs at the bottom of the box type rough. Asking you to bring them toilet paper when they’re already on the pot rough. Leaving a bruise just by giving you a “pat” on the back. The loud-ass jokesters who happily expose you in front of God and the homies for quitting football after two weeks because you knew getting hit was gonna hurt.

We know Spoon. We’ve always known Spoon. And because of that, we also understand his strain of comedy as an endangered species.

The perspectives of mainstream Black art in film and television shifted from the class anxiety of working-class families in the ’70s, to the aspirational visions of the ’90s, and finally into the staunchly middle-class conventions of our glossy streaming present. As the scope of mainstream imagination has narrowed, it’s quickly marginalizing these characters and their place in our culture. You could see it in Witherspoon’s own work; as he started to play older and older characters, the mold he left behind was never truly filled. Comic actors have either vaulted into overperformance (Tracy Morgan, Kevin Hart) or more “serious” roles (Dave Chappelle, Chris Tucker). But while it might seem like characters like the ones Spoon inhabits will fade into extinction, try asking production teams behind the eventual final Friday movie and the planned Boondocks revival; I’d wager most couldn’t imagine working on those sets without him.

John Witherspoon’s legacy is Black and cultural. That is, the full breadth of his work is something only Black people would really get. He made most of his enduring roles — the most riveting and the most ridiculous — with and for Black people. That’s something almost no Black actors (much less most working Black people in America) can say with any sort of veracity. And he did so publicly, loudly, and for more than 40 years.

Toward the beginning of that run, Regina King met John Witherspoon on the set of 227. And on that cool October evening in San Francisco, we could feel the joy of their friendship and the weight of her mourning. It’s hard to feel any lasting void when a stranger dies, especially when space, time, and 24-hour news cycles provide endless numbing factors. Whether it’s our discomfort with grief, or with conversations about grief, we eventually move on — and after taking a moment of silence in the theater, we thought we’d move on too.

But later that night, at a post-event dinner, I ended up talking with Regina King again. We somehow wandered back into each other, and started to talk a little about Watchmen and about John Witherspoon. “Spoon, man,” she said with a smile. “He was 77, but you couldn’t really tell because he had all that energy. Plus, he always dyed his hair black!” Then she let out a laugh — a good laugh, a deep one, straight from the diaphragm.

It was a laugh that let me know that even if the famous quotes fade, even if the side roles and self-mockery suffer the dust of age, ain’t nobody about to forget Spoon.

African from Texas• Staff Writer at LEVEL • Black politics, Celebrity interviews, TV & Film Criticism • Previously: MTV News, San Francisco Chronicle

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