“Excuse me, everyone. I have a brief announcement to make: Jesus was Black, Ronald Reagan was the devil, and the government is lying about 9/11. Thank you for your time. And goodnight.”
We're re-publishing this piece on The Boondocks' importance in wake of the TV series' reboot with HBO Max, announced yesterday.
Such is the opening to The Boondocks, Aaron McGruder’s biting R-rated anime that took a long, hard look at varying perspectives of individuals in the black community over the course of its 55-episode run. The series followed Huey and Riley Freeman, two brothers from South Side Chicago being raised by Robert Jebediah “Granddad” Freeman in the predominantly white (and “recently desegregated”) neighborhood of Woodcrest in Baltimore, Maryland. Though the show first aired on Adult Swim in November 2005, it had been the vehicle for McGruder’s smart satire since 1996, when it began circulating in national newspapers as a comic strip. The colossal undertaking of translating the lightning rod for criticism into an animated series resulted in an intelligent and reliable critique of American culture that was as blunt and straightforward in its observations as anything that’s been featured on television.
The Boondocks relied on compelling caricatures of various black identities to create a worthwhile dialogue about taboo topics such as cultural appropriation, gentrification, and race relations. Huey, a disciple of the Black Panthers’ co-founder Huey Newton, was the show’s protagonist and cynical voice of reason, and the moral compass of the familial trio. Despite being labeled a “domestic terrorist” for his militant brand of black nationalist politics, he was adamant in wanting better for his people, and in his desire for them to strive for something greater. On the other end of the spectrum was Huey’s younger brother Riley, an impressionable 8-year-old gangsta-wannabe who represented the negative impact that certain stereotypes and imagery can have on urban black youth. He idolized the toxic masculinity and gender norms of the “thug life,” and his obsession with mimicking what he saw and heard on TV and in music led him to blindly follow unsavory characters like Thugnificent, Gangstalicious, and Ed Wuncler III. Riley’s criminal behavior in pursuit of street cred landed him in hot water on more than one occasion, but none of it dissuaded him from continuing to chase the false pretenses of “hood celebrity.”
Huey and Riley (both voiced by the marvelous Regina King) were accompanied by a diverse supporting cast, with each character playing a distinct narrative role. The vile and chauvinistic bigot Uncle Ruckus (“no relation”) was a black man that explicitly hated black people and had been brainwashed into thinking that he was an adopted “white” male with a disease called “re-vitiligo.” There was the appropriately named Tom DuBois, a blandly-earnest and mild-mannered defense attorney who was married to a white woman with whom he had fostered a confused biracial daughter named Jazmine. And of course there was Granddad, the selfish and grumpy pragmatist who cared for the boys but was more often than not a dysfunctional legal guardian.
Uncle Ruckus of "The Boondocks" (actor Gary Anthony Williams) - Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images
Though the many contradictory opinions of the show’s characters were constantly butting heads on different issues, no viewpoint was necessarily presented as being “correct.” Instead, McGruder allowed the audience to come to their own conclusions, regardless of their race or political persuasion. However, that didn’t mean the commentary within was flattened beneath the gavel of parochial objectivity. On the rather prophetic “The Trial of Robert Kelly,” the infamous R&B singer stood trial for the 2002 allegations that he urinated on an underage girl. The animated mock-trial, which aired three years before Kelly’s actual trial on child pornography charges, discussed everything from the sexual proclivities of the ancient Greeks to what constitutes a mountain of evidence, and culminated in a scorching confrontation between the parties involved. Riley, an R. Kelly superfan, defends the accused, insisting that the girl was old enough to consciously “get out of the way.” Huey, on the other hand, believes that the artist should be held accountable for his actions and delivers an impassioned speech to the courtroom: “Every famous n***a that gets arrested is not Nelson Mandela! Yes, the government conspires to put a lot of innocent black men in jail on fallacious charges. But R. Kelly is not one of those men!” Those in attendance ultimately fail to heed Huey’s words: Riley starts booing, and the onlookers go right back to dancing around a boombox playing R. Kelly’s hits. With The Pied Piper having been released an innocent man, Huey reflects on the ignorance as the episode comes to a close: “You do what you can to help black folks, and they make you wonder why you even bother. But they’re our people, and we got to love them regardless.”
The Boondocks was heavily rooted in the time period in which it was created: the reelection of George W. Bush, the fear-mongering of the war on terror, the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina following the lack of action from FEMA, and the emergence of modern technologies like texting and YouTube were all dissected in one way or another. Moments like the ones found in “The Trial of Robert Kelly” were both firmly funny and unnervingly serious in a way that connected with what makes America tick, as evidenced by the recent viral response to Lifetime's Surviving R. Kelly (the six-part documentary featured the aforementioned Boondocks episode). As the years have worn on, The Boondocks’ place in the digital landscape has felt more difficult to ascertain, in large part due to the fact that media plot lines now come and go in the frenzied 24-hour news cycle. It’s exceedingly difficult, if not outright impossible, to transform the weekly innovation of a comic strip into an artform that takes years to piece together.
And while the show didn’t offer an instantaneous response in the way that #BlackTwitter is now capable of producing, the cultural approach of its fictionalized universe is still as relevant and real as ever, even in an altered comedy landscape. For all the latent criticism that The Boondocks was “running in place” and relied too heavily on outdated cultural-in jokes, it still managed to deliver a mental release through its raw creative merits and predominantly insightful stabs. The petty conflicts and irrational confrontations of WorldStarHipHop were embodied by Colonel H. Stinkmeaner, while the ignorant spending habits of the rich and famous were chronicled in the story arc of Thugnificent. The show even delved into the problematic comportment of white people in America, as evidenced by Cindy McPhearson, and the Wuncler family’s monopoly of life in Woodcrest. The headlines have changed, but the concepts and underlying themes are still applicable to what we see everyday in the news and on social media. The show’s critique of the fractured socio-political climate of the U.S. still holds true, especially given the contemporary chaos of alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, the rising tide of gun violence and police brutality, and the marginalization of minorities. All of this would provide ample material for McGruder if the show were still running; President Donald Trump’s Twitter has enough ammo alone to sustain an entire revamp.
"The Boondocks" cartoonist Aaron McGruder - Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images
McGruder commented on black culture from a critical black perspective that pinpointed the complexity of the black experience. His creation’s politically-charged punch and sharp racial awareness drove a dagger straight through the heart of the notion that black culture is monolithic. The show’s top-notch writing was interrupted only by well-choreographed (if strikingly violent) action sequences, and the anime-style aesthetic lent itself to the poignant and purposeful structure of the series.Although the vulgarity, irreverent humor, and liberal use of the “N-word” would likely be a source of discomfort among the overly-sensitive milquetoast of modern media, there is still so much to be gleaned from a show that first aired nearly a decade-and-a-half ago. It’s clever and astute observations of pop culture’s progression and the changes (or rather lack thereof) to society leave plenty of room for further analysis of the hypocrisy of humanity and its many flawed institutions. What would Huey have to say about ICE detaining children at the border? How would Riley react to 21 Savage being a British citizen? And what would Granddad think about Megan Thee Stallion’s “Big Ole Freak”? The Sunken Place, T’Challa, Colin Kaepernick, Jussie Smollett, and Tekashi 6ix9ine are all potential fodder for the Peabody Award-winning show.
In conjunction with Seung Kim, the former animator of the Adult Swim adaptation, McGruder briefly resurrected the comic via Charlamagne Tha God’s Instagram, with the one-off strips examining MSNBC, the “moral fortitude” of Michael Jackson, and the dichotomy of “political n****s versus get money n****s.” Though the fourth and final season of the show unfortunately ended up being a middling bastardization of McGruder’s vision and a shell of its former self, The Boondocks has stood the test of time for its impactful storytelling and unapologetic willingness to shine a light on injustices that America has continued to ignore. “What has never been lost on me is the enormous responsibility that came with The Boondocks — particularly the television show and its relatively young audience,” said McGruder in a letter addressing fans who were disappointed by his departure from the show’s direction. “It was important to offend, but equally important to offend for the right reasons. For three seasons I personally navigated this show through the minefields of controversy. It was not perfect. And it definitely was not quick. But it was always done with a keen sense of duty, history, culture and love. Anything less would have been unacceptable.”