For the past six months, two black cartoon boys have been glowering at us from billboards across the nation, advertising Adult Swim’s animated version of Aaron McGruder’s comic strip “The Boondocks,” which made its premiere last November. The television version was just picked up for a second season, and Mr. McGruder recently announced that he is putting the strip on a six-month hiatus, presumably to give the show his full attention.
The show and the strip center around two little brothas (who are, indeed, siblings) transplanted from a humble black neighborhood to a white suburb to live with their irascible grandfather. The older boy, who is about 10, with a massive Afro, is a selfprofessed revolutionary named Huey (get it?), while the younger one, Riley, is a dreadlocked little thug-in-training.
Now and then the show lets us laugh at jokes that the strip format could not accommodate. In one episode, Riley notices that brawls always seem to start when someone throws a chair. In order to distract a threatening mob, he grabs a folding chair and throws it. It clatters limply to the ground a few yards away. Two beats later someone says, “I’m mad!” and the crowd immediately erupts into a brawl, allowing Riley to skitter away. In another episode, Grandpa is shown sitting next to Rosa Parks on the Montgomery bus, and he refuses along with her to give up his seat. But for some reason no one pays him any attention, while Parks is immediately raised to sainthood.
This kind of humor makes “The Boondocks” a lot more compelling than the sunny vapidity of “Fat Albert,” for which I am not nostalgic in the least. But much more often the characters serve as mouthpieces for Mr. McGruder’s professionally alienated politics,with insights such as: America is as bigoted today as it was in 1965, Condoleezza Rice is a dateless, warmongering sellout, and so on. Mr. Mc-Gruder is cherished by many as a fresh new voice from the left. Yet what is novel is less anything Mr. McGruder says than merely his expression of pungent sentiments about race in cartoon format. There is little new in Mr. Mc-Gruder’s basic message that to be authentically black is to be defined by defiance, regardless of societal changes for the better.
The television show’s artwork neatly underscores this in a way that the sketchier style of the newspaper strip does not. Huey and Riley’s crisp outlines and permanent scowls contrast with soft-focus gouache-style backgrounds of mansions and wide, treelined streets, often shown in such a wide angle that they dwarf the boys. This composition poses Huey and Riley as aliens amid their surroundings. The backgrounds show white America as a looming menace.
When the focus is on the people themselves, Huey and Riley are often stuck among whites who view them as pickaninnies.In one episode,they wind up at a white garden party where Huey spouts revolutionary rhetoric, only to have the attendees laugh and clap, treating him as a performer. Never mind that the monologue is indeed a performance. In reality, the educated whites at this party are the last people who would openly treat it as such today. The scene is a parody, but what does the joke reveal about the real America, in which the white Indianapolis Star editor Dennis Ryerson has called Mr. McGruder a “thought-provoking, articulate artist who looks at the world with brutal honesty”?
Certainly race still matters. But has Mr. McGruder, who as late as 1990 was only 15, really experienced a nation of white people who think of black people as talking monkeys, or does he just enjoy the self-righteous thrill of pretending they do? Mr. McGruder knows that white America has evolved beyond the era of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” But he can’t admit it, because then he wouldn’t be interesting.
That is a little childish, which ties into an overall tension on the show between the heaviness of the racial politics and the eternal lightness of animated cartoons. Mr. McGruder delights in drawing fierce boys kicking butt, as in one episode when Huey and Riley have a lovingly rendered knock-down-dragout that is barely necessary to the plot. Here Mr. McGruder is channeling the Japanese animé style,as he also does in drawing the female characters. Most of the women are built like Victoria’s Secret models or the girls in the “Archie” comic books. Even the mousy white wife of the show’s resident “Oreo” is built like Halle Berry.
Of course “The Boondocks” is a cartoon, so we expect adolescent stuff. We can hardly expect a cartoon to rise to the level of “The Federalist Papers.” “South Park” is also full of bloody violence, and many of its episodes are likewise built on the teenage boy’s fantasy of fighting some evildoer trying to take over the world.
Yet while “The Boondocks” gives the impression of serving us serious insights alongside the high jinks, the politics are just as juvenile as the cartoon violence and 36–28–36 babes. At one point, Huey imagines that Martin Luther King Jr. was left in a coma in 1968 and wakes up today appalled at what he sees. King makes a speech condemning black America for being frivolous and lazy, and “the revolution” finally comes, with black America storming the White House gates.
Good theater, but Mr. McGruder stops the narrative there. But in 1963, the march on Washington demanded desegregation and voting rights. What exactly would the people at the gates be asking for today? If most Great Society programs did not work, what magic cure is white America holding back today? “It’s fun to dream,” Huey grouses, as if it were obvious what this “revolution” would entail. But that dream is an idle one, not just because the “revolution”isn’t going to happen, but because so many of black America’s thinkers, leaders, and ordinary citizens have been stuck in aimless, self-medicating alienation that seeks a “revolution” that clearly will never happen.
I get especially itchy when Mr. Mc-Gruder takes the us-versus-them pose into the dangerous idea that until that “revolution” comes, it is simply self-preservation to sidestep the norms of the oppressor. Mr. McGruder has Riley abetting violent criminals and giving us wisdom on whites such as this: “When they talk, they say the whole word li-ke thisss. And white people take time out to study.” Funny, I guess. But all this shows is that lil’ Riley is on his way to being one of those middle-class black kids who thinks school is “white.” Or he’s on his way to jail. Ha ha.
Mr. McGruder has a more urgent political agenda than that of Matt Stone and Trey Parker, the creators of “South Park.” Huey and Riley are stylized figures, but overall the artwork in “The Boondocks” is more realistic than in “South Park,” with its stiff little cutouts.The events seem to be happening in the real world. And in interviews and public addresses, Mr. McGruder presents himself as telling us (mostly the whites among us) something important. But in the end, the political substrate of the show is undemanding, comforting its adherents while making no difference in the lives of people who really need help. Sure, one could say the same of “Doonesbury.” But in broaching the Race Thing, Mr. McGruder bears a responsibility that Garry Trudeau does not.
Edgy is one thing — consult “In Living Color” or “The PJs.” Merely showing your behind is something else. I am aware that in wishing Mr. McGruder would be more responsible in his politics, I sound rather like the creator of “Fat Albert,” Bill Cosby. But I can’t help it — as Mr. McGruder is surely aware, race matters.
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