Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Right To Be Hostile

by Odienator
(click here for all posts)

Odienator note: Sorry for being so late with the posts, folks, but I've been struggling with some bad news and preparing for a funeral the past few days. I'm back on duty.

I used to read Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks comic strip religiously, that is, when the newspaper allowed me to read it. It seemed like every other day the newspaper was pulling the strip because America has its head up its ass over what constitutes patriotism. (I’m being hyperbolic, but only about the papers pulling the strip every day.) McGruder used the strip to make fun of being censored, which seemed to make the newspapers even madder. I liked the way the strip looked, and its fearlessness in terms of going after Black issues that were sacred. Most importantly, in McGruder, I’d found the only other Black person who hated BET as much as I did. One of the first anti-BET strips he drew was even pulled for content. (It had a giant, shaking hoochie ass, much like your BET screen does right now.) McGruder credits his public feud with BET creator Bob Johnson as the means to his ghetto success. “But it was Bob Johnson’s outrage at this and the many other BET strips to come,” writes McGruder, “that helped put me on Black America’s radar screen.”

In All the Rage, the last Boondocks collection, McGruder writes “controversy is an unstable =element. It cannot be dependably controlled, contained, or predicted. It’s dangerous to spend too much time trying to chase after it or trying to avoid it.” All the Rage contains several altered or censored comics, along with McGruder’s commentary on them. It also contains regular comic strips from the series’ 10 year run and interviews with McGruder from several publications. In the interviews, McGruder remains defiant (uppity even!) about his strip and how silly most of the controversy was over it. A lot of papers said they pulled content because they were afraid of offending Black people, patriotic Americans, or even worse, the children.

Who are “the children?” They’re not real kids. They are some faceless hypothetical group designed to make certain agendas seem more important than they are. In college, the priest told me that, in Biblical times, pork was mishandled and the resulting food poisoning killed people. So people were told that God didn’t want them to eat pork. Same thing here. Anything that offends sensibilities is bad because “the children” may be watching. Why are the little bastards up? And do they have possession of the remote control? When my Mom saw “parental discretion advised,” she made me turn the TV off. Parental Discretion Advised has been replaced by the TV-14 rating, which you’d probably notice if you actually paid attention to what your kids consume.

For example, Janet Jackson’s titty got pulled out during the Super Bowl, and people freaked out because “the children” were watching. Never mind that titties were made for kids, and by God, no less! Sure, we like them too, but their original intent was not just to distinguish between the genders in Avatar; they were meant to feed the children! Four hour erections and guys getting beer bottles opened in their assholes (an actual Bud Light Super Bowl Commercial, folks) are harder, and more uncomfortable, to explain to “the children” than a titty. Using “the children” as an excuse to keep the adults from seeing things is bullshit. And if it were true, I shouldn’t be punished because horny parents used the Rhythm Method. "We are a part of the Rhythm Method," sings Janet.

Speaking of children, Aaron McGruder put the words of his philosophy on everything ‘hood related and politically oriented into the mouths of the children who populate The Boondocks. There’s his main character, Huey, named after Huey P. Newton, Huey’s brother, Riley, and Huey’s friend Caesar. Huey is an activist who is always pointing out the stupid things our people do. Riley is a thug, a kid who endorses many of the things Huey protests against. Both are living in the titular location, a suburban town, with their Grandpa Freeman. Grandpa is raising the kids with strong values and an even stronger belt. Neither kid is particularly happy living in this strange environment--once Huey calls Grandpa pretending to be the KKK telling him to move out of the neighborhood—but they’re stuck there. While trapped, the characters muse on subjects like Vivica A. Fox, Soul Plane, Condoleeza Rice, and something we should have here at Black History Mumf, “The Most Embarrassing Black People Awards.” Other adults in the strip include Tom and Sarah Dubois, two lawyers who are in an interracial marriage. They have a daughter named Jazmine, who needs to ask Michael Jackson if she’s Black or White.

Perhaps the most disturbing character in The Boondocks is Uncle Ruckus, a bug eyed, scary looking Uncle Tom who hates everything Black. Never mind that he’s, according to Grandpa, “darker than the Ace of Spades.” “Don’t point out my affliction!” screams Uncle Ruckus. “I have re-vitilego!” He loves the White man, saying that White people “smell like lemon Pledge.” Uncle Ruckus’ name is a play on Uncle Remus, the storyteller from Song of the South (a movie I haven’t seen in 35 years, but would kill to see now). Of all of The Boondocks’ characters, Uncle Ruckus is the one who never grew on me.

After the strip ended, Cartoon Network, a tv station that used to pimp kiddie cartoons like Dexter’s Laboratory, picked up the TV version of the Boondocks. It’s rated TV-MA despite being bleeped and censored six ways to Sunday. All of the strip’s characters have made the switch, as have several new, memorable characters. The voice talent is spot-on, with Regina King voicing both Riley and Huey, John Witherspoon bringing his righteous indignation voice to Grandpa, and Reno 911’s Cedric Yarborough as Tom DuBois. Uncle Ruckus gets a crusty, nasty, and appropriate voice from Gary Anthony Williams, and Lou Grant, Ed Asner, voices Ed Wuncler, the business tycoon who owns everything in town, including the police. In an amusing bit of color-blind voice casting, Charlie Murphy voices Asner’s son, an obvious W clone, and Samuel Yell Jackson turns Jules Winfield into Gin Rummy, Murphy’s equally White partner in crime.

I am torn about the animated version of The Boondocks. When the writers latch on to a good story and follow the premise through, the show is consistent and funny. More often than not, it goes for a quick, cheap laugh that breaks the momentum. There are so many good ideas and in-jokes running through the show that I get a little disappointed when they beat a joke into the ground with the subtlety of Martin Lawrence’s stand-up. McGruder and his writers must get paid $100 per use of the word nigga, and there’s way too much Uncle Ruckus. Huey provides an explanation for why Grandpa keeps Uncle Ruckus around, “like it or not, they’re our people and we have to take care of them,” but to me, Ruckus the least creative aspect of the show.

The Boondocks has taken on the R. Kelly trial, allegedly gay rappers, Jungle Fever, and the “stop snitching” campaign. Riley, the thug life representative on the show, is usually in the middle of things, with Huey shaking his head in disgust at just how gullible Black people can be. Sometimes Riley makes warped but perfect logical sense, as in the R. Kelly episode where he says “if she didn’t want to get peed on, she coulda moved out da way!” Tom, who is prosecuting the Pied Piper of R&B, throws the “we have to protect the children” argument at Riley, and Riley out-lawyers the lawyer.

Usually, Riley is doing what you’d expect the typical “keepin’ it real” fool to do. He’s happily deluded, and swept up in whatever the popular Negro wave is. Riley refuses to acknowledge that his favorite rapper, Gangstalicious (Mos Def) is gay, despite seeing him kiss another man and listening to Gangstalicious’ blatantly gay lyrics. He even wears Gangstalicious’ new clothing line, which consists of barely concealed bras and skirts, and matching pocketbooks. When Riley finally gets a clue, he asks Huey if being friends with Gangstalicious makes him gay. Huey, seeing an opportunity to get back at his pain in the ass brother, says yes, and like way too many homophobic Negroes I know, Riley believes him, bursting into tears over the revelation.

Huey is Riley’s direct opposite. He questions everything, isn’t willing to buy into anything without checking it out, is always lecturing on the stupid things Riley’s crowd does, and has a shitload of conspiracy theorist in him. Like Riley’s occasional statements of common sense, Huey’s conspiracies sometimes make warped but perfect logical sense. One of the running jokes is Huey’s statement that a riot will always break out if anybody throws a chair. Huey wants Black people to act in a way he deems appropriate. He’s always yelling about how we don’t respect ourselves, and though the show has taken flak for its negative depiction of some Black aspects, I have yet to see a character on the show I haven’t seen some semblance of in real life. Except Uncle Ruckus, but I’m probably too young to have seen his type in nature.

If I were a character from this show, I’d be 80% Huey and 20% Tom. (That’s better than the Sex and City quiz I took, which said I was half Samantha, half Carrie. A writer and a ho. Yup, that’s me, I guess.)

The show’s best episode is also its most controversial. In “Return of the King,” Huey has his own Inglourious Basterds moment, retelling a history where, instead of dying, Dr. Martin Luther King is put into a coma after James Earl Ray’s bullet fells him. He awakens 30 years later and, having missed decades of technical advancement, is completely lost. He’s not allowed to vote in the 2000 election, and when MLK goes on TV after 9/11 preaching the Christian tenets of tolerance, forgiveness and turning the other cheek, he’s immediately branded a traitor and a socialist. All of Dr. King’s goodwill in the White American world is shot to hell.

Soonafter, he runs into Grandpa at an empty book signing for King’s latest book. Grandpa still harbors a grudge against Rosa Parks for stealing his thunder. Both he and Ms. Parks refuse to give up their seats—he refuses first—yet everyone only acknowledges her act of defiance. Grandpa takes MLK home, and Riley has no idea who he is, mistakenly calling him Morgan Freeman. “You don’t look like no King!” he says. Huey is terrified that Riley is this ignorant, and Riley’s disrespect gets him the receiving end of an angry Grandpa’s belt.

Huey sees MLK as an opportunity to start a Black political party. Things are different in the media than in King’s time, so Huey serves as his agent and tutor in the ways of common politics. MLK goes on Fox News, where he is berated by what looks like Bill O’Reilly. Huey’s theory about chairs makes an appearance, as Huey hits O’Reilly with a chair and starts kicking his ass on live TV.

Meanwhile, Dr. King continues to be confused and fascinated about things like iPods (“I tried to download some Mahalia Jackson, but I lost my iTunes password!”) and Mickey D’s (“oh snap, somebody made a boneless rib sandwich”). In both places, he sees images of himself in the advertisements. “I really should have control over these things,” he says to Huey.

Huey takes a grassroots approach to getting the word out of the new Dr. King Party. We see all the cast members putting up signs and going door to door to recruit people to come to a rally. Everybody except Uncle Ruckus who, for a change, is actually useful and funny in this episode. He keeps hurling bricks at Dr. King every single time he sees him, much like he did during the Civil Rights period. There’s a black and white flashback where Ruckus is the only Black person on a jury prosecuting a blind Black man of shooting three White people. Ruckus says “that nigga’s guilty!” and pulls out a noose. I was almost ashamed of myself for laughing.

The rally is set, but a clueless Dr. King calls the rap station to ask them to promote the event. The station gives tickets away in a contest to screaming Negroes who think this is going to be a club event, not a political one. “Ut-oh!” says Dr. King when he realizes the error of his ways.

At the venue, Dr. King and Huey can’t get past the velvet rope, and King is the guest of honor! The ignorant bouncer, who looks old enough to recognize MLK, won’t let them in. “You ain’t gettin’ in here with dem shoes,” he tells Huey. “What’s wrong with my shoes?!” asks Huey. The bouncer makes them pay $100 to get past him, only to resurface at the second door. When he’s distracted, Huey sneaks MLK into the event. The camera looks out onto the crowd, and Huey narrates all the bad things Dr. King sees. People are fighting, dressed like hos, and acting like stereotypes. Dr. King tries to get their attention, but nobody’s listening. Finally, he snaps.

“Will you ignorant niggas PLEASE shut the hell up?!!!” screams Dr. King.

Dr. King then proceeds to say the word “nigga” at least 20 times, quoting (if I’m not mistaken) a rap record whose name escapes me. MLK calls that word “the ugliest word in the English language” (and it is) but says he can’t think of another word to describe what he’s seeing. The Black people in the room are shocked. Here’s Dr. King using the N-word! “This is what I took all these ass-whippings for?!!” he asks incredulously. I was in a hotel room on a work trip the first time I saw this episode, and when MLK asks that question, I jumped from my seat, screaming like a bitch and cheering. I think I had an orgasm when Dr. King calls Black Entertainment Television “the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life!” (Reggie Hudlin, producer of The Boondocks and director of House Party, must have a wicked sense of humor; he’s the President of BET.)

Dr. King basically says to hell with trying to reform our people, opting instead to move to Canada and retire. However, Dr. King’s strong words start a revolution, with Blacks getting together to take care of one another, get educated and get mad about the current state of events, both in their communities and the world at large. It all ends with Oprah being elected President in 2020. “It’s nice to dream,” says Huey.

I thought this was one of the most brilliant half-hours I’ve ever seen on television. Of course, your press whores and sound bite makers missed the entire point of this episode, opting instead to complain that Dr. King’s memory had been tarnished because he said nigga. Yes, but the end result was he jarred people out of their stupor and made them care. The message was delivered by the one Black person most Black people, young and old, still have undying respect for, as if he were the only person they’d listen to in this world. The reverence we have for Dr. King would save the day. McGruder, who wrote the episode, is masterful at bringing out the satire, from the improper use of Dr. King’s image to the religious right’s ability to use Jesus as a threat and a figurehead, forgetting what He stood for whenever it’s convenient. Riley’s ignorance of Dr. King is stretching things, especially in Grandpa’s house, but it’s a small flaw in an otherwise perfect episode.

It’s shit like this that got McGruder’s strip pulled time after time. I’m glad that, bleeped or not, Cartoon Network didn’t pull this episode despite the controversy.


Ganya said...

Terrific read. Right up there with the MLK episode is the brilliant rendering of the Iraq invasion as a convenience store holdup gone wrong.

There is one actual person who bears at least a physical resemblance to Uncle Ruckus: Stanley Crouch . . . .

odienator said...

Ganya, somehow I missed that episode! I'll have to look for it on the Net or on cable.

There is one actual person who bears at least a physical resemblance to Uncle Ruckus: Stanley Crouch

NOW NOW!! It's Black History Mumf, and didn't I say y'all better be good at the beginning of the Mumf?!! But you're right. He does look something like Uncle Ruckus. Now every time I see Crouch in the NY Daily News, I'm going to hear Uncle Ruckus singing "Don't trust them new niggas..."

Jamie said...

Wonderful job. I think McGruder is a genius, but my take on the show is a bit like yours. The cheap jokes bother me less just because the show is so well made. Regina King's voice acting is amazing. Dialogue like "Jail nigga, you gay," is not exactly defensible, but I laugh whenever I think about the way that Riley says it.

Hey, do you have any plans to review "Black Dynamite?

odienator said...

Jamie: Hey, do you have any plans to review "Black Dynamite?

Not this year, but I will say that I thought it was very funny. Unlike I'm Gonna Git You Sucka, Black Dynamite looks like a Blaxploitation movie. Michael Jai White is a lot of fun, but what made the movie for me was the explanation of the Malt Liquor commercial: "It gives you WHOOOOOOO!" That extremely convoluted explanation made me laugh so hard I couldn't breathe.

It was also nice to see Arsenio in a movie--and being funny--after a long absence from the screen.

Hal said...

I had never seen this particular episode before (I've only seen about 10 BOONDOCKS) but sought it out after your review. Brilliant. Hearing Dr. King mention SOUL PLANE right after BET on his list of "worsts" was hilarious too.

odienator said...

Hal, Dr. King mentions every hot button issue from the strip. He also says "Usher, Michael Jackson is NOT a genre!" That's the topic of a whole slew of strips from the comic.

Regarding Soul Plane, I have seen it. I laughed ONCE, and I was ashamed of myself for laughing. In fact, what I laughed at is in the trailer, so I didn't even have to watch the damn movie.

Steven Boone said...

I was always partial to the gentler but similarly fits-n-starts hilarious PJ's (Eddie Murphy channeling the spirit of Good Times via stop motion animation). But The Boondocks can hang. I have only seen a handful of episodes, but in each one, something chokingly hilarious popped up.

And Soul Plane made me laugh more than I'm comfortable admitting.

I knew a dude who wrote short film about Malcolm X coming back on the scene in the 90s, all horror-stricken at what hath become of his people. Now I'd like to see the Boondocks version of that.

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