The Itis

04.21.14

Aaron McGruder’s ‘The Boondocks’ Returns Without Aaron McGruder

The show has been around for almost 20 years, and it’s come back from the dead more than once. This time, though, it’s returning without its creator.

After a four-year hiatus, Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks is coming back to television without Aaron McGruder.

Set in the fictional suburb of Woodcrest, Maryland, The Boondocks is an Adult Swim animated adaptation based on McGruder’s long-running comic strip of the same name. The show features the adventures of young Huey and Riley Freeman, transplants to the suburbs from Chicago, and their grandfather, Robert “Grandad” Freeman, a former civil right activist. Two generations of American black men navigating racial politics in a mostly white world.

Named after Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton, Huey Freeman serves as the show’s cold, intellectual center, perpetually seeking to show White America the truth of its racial oppression. Riley Freeman acts as counterbalance, dismissing much of his brother’s rhetoric for its snobbish intellectualism that negatively affects his “street cred” among the real Black America. Grandad is tired of both boys’ antics and just wants to quietly live undisturbed in his palatial suburban split level.

Called “the Garry Trudeau of the hip hop generation” by The Washington Post, McGruder’s Boondocks was “one of the biggest comic-strip launches ever” when it was nationally syndicated in 1999, but the funny pages were never McGruder’s first choice. In a February 2000 interview with CityPaper.com, when asked why he chose a comic strip, the author said, “Because they don’t give out television shows. I just want to tell stories…I’m not necessarily married to the medium.” Still, comic fans were upset when, during The Boondocks first season on Adult Swim, United Press Syndicate, now Universal Uclick, announced that the strip was taking a six-month break. When seven months passed with no word on whether the comic would return, UPS announced the strip would go on permanent hiatus.

While it angered fans to see the comic strip depart the funny pages, the animated version gained serious attention. The show first aired in November 2005, just one month after the debut of The Colbert Report and two months after Kanye West spelled out, in plain English, that George W. Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina showed how little White America cared about black people. For the first time in a generation, the united states [decapitalization deliberate] seemed culturally ready to address its racial shortcomings and The Boondocks was its finest Amicus curiae since Do the Right Thing. (It even won a Peabody Award for its episode “Return of the King.”) Like the comic strip, the show has attracted no small amount of controversy, although more for its use of racially charged language and less for episodes like “Tom, Sarah, and Usher,” in which a character is taught how to properly earn his wife’s respect through physical violence.

McGruder commented publicly on his departure only through press releases and official posts on the Facebook page of his new show Black Jesus, saying on March 16, “Just found out someone has hijacked THE BOONDOCKS Facebook page. This was done without my permission and I have absolutely no control over the content being posted as of Friday, March 14.” On March 27 McGruder posted the following statement:

FROM AARON MCGRUDER:

As the world now knows, The Boondocks will be returning for a fourth season, but I will not be returning with it. I’d like to extend my gratitude to Sony and Adult Swim for three great seasons.

I created The Boondocks two decades ago in college, did the daily comic for six years, and was showrunner on the animated series for the first three seasons. The Boondocks pretty much represents my life’s work to this point. Huey, Riley, and Granddad are not just property to me. They are my fictional blood relatives. Nothing is more painful than to leave them behind.

To quote a great white man, “Hollywood is a business”. And to quote another great white man, “Don’t hold grudges”.

What has never been lost on me is the enormous responsibility that came with The Boondocks - particularly the television show and it’s relatively young audience. 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 simply unacceptable.

As for me, I’m finally putting a life of controversy and troublemaking behind me with my upcoming Adult Swim show, BLACK JESUS.

AM

Cartoon fans are now equally suspicious of a fourth Boondocks series without McGruder’s involvement. Before a single episode airs, one of the most frequent predictions is that there will be more Riley and Grandad with a diminished role for Huey, but the show has trended in that direction for much of its existence.

The first episode opened with Huey’s dream of causing white riots by spreading the truth about Jesus, Ronald Reagan, and 9/11 brought to a premature conclusion when Grandad slaps him awake and admonishes the boy, saying, “How many times have I told you that you better not even dream about telling white people the truth?” And advising that his grandson “better learn how to lie like me.” The final episode, which aired in 2010, featured an extended parody of shows like 24 where a team of all white government agents profile and pursue Huey as a “domestic terrorist” because of his “radical leftist affiliation[s].”

The pre-air controversy is mitigated by the fact that Riley and Huey are played by the same actor. As with most animated “bad boys” on television, the person supplying the perennially pre-pubescent voices is a woman, actor Regina King. McGruder has called her performance “astounding” for her ability to switch back and forth between the voices, putting her in the same league as voiceover legends such as Maurice LaMarche, Harry Shearer, and Frank Welker. Originally cast only as Riley, King eventually won both parts.

As with most animated “bad boys” on television, the person supplying the perennially pre-pubescent voices is a woman, actor Regina King.

McGruder has said the decision came as a result of the show “never really [finding] the right Huey voice for the pilot…because whoever got it had to play off Regina. At a certain point, we realized that maybe she should do both, but I had to talk her into it. The studio asked her to do a scene with herself with no preparation. She did both Huey and Riley, back and forth, on the spot and blew us away.”

Along with Boondocks co-star John Witherspoon, Regina King was one of the two most prominent public voices keeping hope alive for a fourth season during the four-year hiatus. As far back as 2012, King not only hinted at a potential for a new season during radio appearance on Sway in the Morning, but also the existence of a rough draft for a Boondocks movie. For his part, Witherspoon has been talking about a fourth season since almost as soon as the third ended and paid the series what is perhaps the highest compliment for which any employer can hope. When asked how he felt about working on the show in an appearance on 103.5 FM, Witherspoon said, “Every check cleared. No bouncing at all.”

King and Witherspoon, in their roles as Huey, Riley, and Robert Freeman, are the warm center of The Boondocks universe, but they inhabit a hostile word. Regular villains include Ed Asner, in the role of evil billionaire Ed Wuncler, along with his hired goons, bumbling grandson, Ed Wuncler III (voiced by Charlie Murphy), and his partner, Gin Rummy (voiced by Samuel L. Jackson). The fourth season will also feature the return of Grandad’s nemesis Colonel H. Stinkmeaner (voiced by Cedric Yarbrough) to once again trouble the Freeman family from beyond the grave. Despite Wuncler having attempted to blow up a building, and Stinkmeaner nearly killing Grandad three times, they are only occasional guest stars on the series. The real work of undercutting the Freemans begins and ends at the doorstep of Uncle Ruckus, played by the brilliant Gary Anthony Williams.

Ruckus is a repository for every type of hate in the universe, a distillation of second millennium Eurocentrist racism masquerading as pseudoscience brought forth in the image of a man. Ruckus says he is a white man suffering a rare skin disease known as re-vitiligo, the opposite of what Michael Jackson had, but the truth, revealed in the penultimate episode, is far more dramatic. Williams, and his portrayal of the character, has set the series miles ahead of anything else on television, presenting a character that talks the way most rich, white people think.

To hear Ruckus soliloquize is to be a fly on the wall in a country club locker room. Rather than the allegorical greed that motivates lesser villains like Wuncler to cover up their racism with elaborate code and innuendo, Ruckus is a product of a life Huey once called “Academy Award nominated sad” and the result is a personality that has no reason to hide its hate.

Rather than Huey, Riley, Grandad, or Ruckus, the biggest fear of a fourth Boondocks season would be a show with even less space for its most promising character, that of Jazmine DuBois. Voiced on the show by Gabby Soleil, the transition from comic to animated cartoon saw a decline in the role McGruder once saw as central to the strip. The first season featured Soleil in seven episodes, the second season, five, and the third season, only four. That is despite the critically applauded first season ending on a Jazmine-centric episode, “The Block is Hot,” an extended homage to Do the Right Thing that not only managed to point out the interconnectivity of global racism, global warming, and “bootstrap” conservatism, but did so by focusing on the young woman’s lemonade stand and her exploitation for financial gain. Soleil will also return for Season 4, but the character is not featured in any of Adult Swim’s promotional material.

Aaron McGruder’s absence from the fourth season of The Boondocks is a sore point for fans of the show, but if anyone is equipped to explain the pain and loss it is unironically Aaron McGruder. In the first year of the comic strip’s syndication, he told Baltimore’s CityPaper.com, “This is a strange job. The combination of talents that you need to be a daily cartoonist is weird. And we are weirdos. Charles Schulz has this really dark streak that comes out in Peanuts… Lynn Johnston talks about dealing with depression. [Calvin and Hobbes creator] Bill Watterson is up in a cabin somewhere. And I have my own head stuff. Doing this day in and day out is hard.” The comparison to Watterson and Schulz are particularly poignant given each creator’s approach to media rights. Watterson never authorized his characters for reproduction in other media, and yet the place most people see Calvin these days is stuck to truck windows and peeing on things. And as for Schulz, last Christmas ABC aired the Charlie Brown special for the 40th year, not shown were the lesser known cartoons produced direct-to-video after Schulz’s death.

Unlike those post-Schulz Peanuts, McGruder has not disappeared. He will return in Adult Swim’s Black Jesus, which Boondocks fans will recognize as the title of Huey Freeman’s play from Season 1. That show received a “twenty minute standing ovation” and was called “a stunning revolution in theater” by the completely unbiased Woodcrest Post Gazette. This incarnation of Black Jesus is live action and features a modern day Christ, complete with apostles, healing the sick and the lame on the pavement of Compton, California.

The real Jesus, if he existed at all, only preached for about two years before he was crucified by Rome. Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks has been around for almost 20 and it's come back from the dead more than once. And besides, what is walking on water and feeding the masses some meager loaves and fishes besides parlor magic and Judaic frugality. But getting a show with an all-black cast on American television? That's some kind of miracle.