Aaron McGruder still has a long list of wide-ranging opinions on a vast variety of subjects; he just isn’t as eager to share them with the world as he once was.
Known for the creating the nationally syndicated comic strip “The Boondocks’’ in the late 1990s, McGruder gained fame and major fans for his usually dead-on and often biting commentary on hot-button social and political issues. The popularity of McGruder and “The Boondocks” soon moved beyond the pages of newspapers and into a full-fledged weekly cartoon show. That added visibility gained McGruder an even larger fan base—but also increased his number of hardcore critics.
A few years ago, McGruder decided he’d take a break from the comic strip that made him a household name, and focus on other, nonanimated projects. This week he reemerges as the co-writer of a film that may very well surprise some.
After a 23-year quest to get a film called Red Tails made by a major Hollywood studio, filmmaker George Lucas decided to finance the project himself. The movie would chronicle the lives of Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American pilots placed in an experimental training program during World War II. Once the Star Wars creator decided he’d spend nearly $58 million to do the film, he wanted, he also decided the mostly historicallyn based script needed a fresher take. Enter Aaron McGruder.
“About two years ago I got a call from my agent asking if I wanted to meet with Lucas to talk about the script,’’ remembers McGruder. “I was like, ‘Yes I would!’ I’m a Stars Wars guy and also the son of a military pilot, so it was the best of both worlds for me to do a project like this.’’
McGruder traveled to Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch near San Francisco and worked directly with the iconic moviemaker, co-writer John Ridley, and director Anthony Hemingway to pull the film from the history books and into a more modern time by simply adding more action.
“That was my biggest contribution to the project, making it more of an action-hero type film,’’ says McGruder. “I used my comic strip experience to make the script have a faster pace. There have been other movies on the Tuskegee Airmen, so I wanted to make sure the audience had a different view of these men and some give them a different story. I think George wanted to strike a balance between the history of their story and action. We did both, which means this film has something for older people who know the story, and younger people who aren’t so familiar with the story and like action.’’
Indeed some reviews critics have described Red Tails as a seamless cross between the beloved high-octane action films Indiana Jones and Stars Wars. Fans who’ve seen it say they favor the complex story that provides great detail on the courage, fortitude, and actions of a special group of true American heroes. The film takes the audiences deep into the world and lives of fighter pilots during WWII, while also showcasing the epic struggle being fought behind the scenes to allow African-American soldiers a chance to play a more pivotal role in the war.
“I want teenage boys to come to this movie and see real heroes they can relate to,’’ said Lucas. “I want them to leave this film inspired.’’
In 1999, McGruder inspired thousands of young fans by offering new and unique faces on the pages of comic strips around the country. Boondocks followed the lives of two young African-American brothers, (Huey and Riley) from inner-city Chicago forced to live and adapt to life with their grandfather in the sedate suburbs.
From the moment the comic series made its debut, it ignited a firestorm of response for its often cynical observations about the likes of Condoleezza Rice, Whitney Houston, Bill Cosby, and actress Vivica A. Fox.
Still, McGruder’s most famous target by far in both print and on air was Black Entertainment Television, which McGruder regularly accused of being an evil empire plotting the destruction of black people, due to its content. The comic strip was pulled from newspaper pages many times because of its controversial topics, and several episodes of the on-air series were held due to legal issues. While “The Boondocks” made its mark on popular culture, it proved overwhelming at times for McGruder, who was hospitalized for exhaustion at point one while writing the daily strip.
Currently, the 37-year-old is in pursuit of other non-Boondocks-related television and movie projects, including developing a TV pilot with actor Don Cheadle. Surprisingly, McGruder says he’s enjoying his time away from the world of politics, controversy, and drama, and rarely has much to say on many of the same topics that fueled his work just a few years ago.
“I’m a Stars Wars guy and the son of a military pilot, so it was the best of both worlds for me to do a project like this.’’
“I don’t really engage in those type of conversations anymore,’’ says McGruder, who doesn’t have a Twitter or Facebook account. “ Not in public. It’s not worth it for me. It’s a new day and everyone is a critic and everyone is on television no matter if they are talented or not. Things have changed drastically in the business over the last few years but I hope to have something new for people soon.’’
McGruder credits Lucas and Red Tails for making his initial foray into the world of film a pleasant one.
“For this to be my first project was an amazing way to get started,’’ say McGruder who did limited press for the film. “I can’t predict what Red Tails will do at the box office, but I hope it does well enough for more films like this to be made.’’