Black Power Rangers
Huey Freeman has a dream. The 10-year-old hero of Boondocksa new animated series based on the popular comic stripfantasizes about walking into a ritzy white man's garden party and inciting a riot by speaking truth to power. Stuff like "Jesus was black, Ronald Reagan was the devil, and the government lied about 9-11." Huey's reverie is interrupted by his own granddad, who slaps him awake shouting, "How many times I told you, you better not even dream of telling white folks the truth. . . . I'm gonna go find a white man and lie to him right now!" When a rich white neighbor invites the Freeman family to an actual garden party, Huey's attempts to live the dream are shattered further: The sparkly white party guests remain utterly unruffled by his tirades about Reagan and the Pentagon, condescendingly applauding him for being "such an articulate young man."
Although prime time is littered with cranky white guys of every ideological stripe, from Bill O'Reilly to Larry David, angry black voices on TV are pretty much nonexistent. So Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder's decision to use two saucer-eyed little boys to voice radical discontent registers as an ingenious Trojan horse move, one recently echoed by Chris Rock, whose prime-time UPN show Everybody Hates Chris stars a cute wiseass kid, cloaking the otherwise discomfiting class and race story threads. "It's always easier to use kids to get across threatening ideas in a non-threatening way," McGruder says. But the fact is that he's never tried very hardor at allto make Boondocks less provocative. Since the strip first went into national syndication in 1999 (when McGruder was just 26), it has become infamous for being yanked from newspapers because of its inflammatory subject matter, from searing post9-11 jabs at the government to digs at Condoleezza Rice's love life.
The premise of Boondocks is that mini-militant Huey Freeman and his little brother Riley, a gangsta in training, have been dragged by their crotchety granddad from inner-city Chicago to the boondocksa suburban planned community where Afros like Huey's belong mostly to security guards, and the only hip-hop around emerges from the bedrooms of rich white folks' Eminem-loving wigga spawn. "I moved y'all out here to expand your horizons," Granddad explains to Huey and Riley. "There's a new white man out here. He's refined, loves gourmet cheese. You give the meanest white man a piece of cheese and he turn into Mister Rogers."
The comic strip always combined manga visuals with political bite, but the TV version comes off as minimalist-verging-on-static. A handful of talking heads riff against a super-flat visual surface, whose deliberate non-state-of-the-art-ness harks back to the Hanna-Barbera '70s. While most episodes pivot around race, there are more personal scenarios too, like the time Granddad falls for a white 'ho. The series found a home at the Cartoon Network, where the late-night Adult Swim programming block has made room for all kinds of kooky and outré creations, from talking junk food to a superhero law firm. And where several Adult Swim shows wink at their reference-savvy audience by weaving in cartoon characters from long-lost superhero shows, Boondocks makes room for cameo roles by black icons past and present. McGruder brings Martin Luther King Jr. back to life and prosecutes R. Kelly. Does McGruder see himself as the cartoon world version of Henry Louis Gates Jr., sifting through the archives of African Americana? McGruder murmurs, "It is an odd show . . . "
But McGruder has no interest in turning the Freeman brothers into uplifting positive role models à la Bill Cosby's Nickelodeon cartoon Little Bill. These boys are corrosively cynical and unstoppably outspoken, much like McGruder's own media image. A New Yorker piece last year recounted an incident at an anniversary gala for The Nation at which he allegedly berated the audience of aging white lefties; the late Jack Newfield compared the experience to "watching LeRoi Jones try to Mau-Mau a guilty white liberal in the sixties." McGruder chuckles when asked about it now. "That was the rowdiest, most disrespectful crowd I'd ever spoken in front of. . . . They were heckling! I was like, What are y'all doing? So I think the nigger in me came out a little bit. But it really reminded me, I don't need to be doing this, it's not my forte."
He may have briefly been infatuated with the idea of being a public figure a younger, skinnier, melanin-enriched Michael Moorebut McGruder says now he'd rather stay behind the scenes as a creator of satirical comics, books, TV shows, and (eventually) movies. "You end up becoming part of the spectacle, part of that unresolved argument that takes place in short soundbites and never moves anywhere," he says. "It seems like there's a bigger plan at work here and it's a plan we don't have much say-so over." And if that's the case, he suggests that his real power lies not in changing minds but in keeping spirits high by "telling jokes to those who are already on your page. . . . I don't have illusions that I might do anything bigger than that."
Get the Theater Newsletter
Get a rundown of upcoming theater events and ticket deals in New York.