Once upon a time, a snarky little comic strip rose from relative obscurity to become fodder for Sunday morning political pundits and shaking heads along Washington DC’s beltway. Speaking truth to power in regards to some of the most influential events of our time (a series of strips had a lead character calling a tip line to report Ronald Reagan for funding terrorism or positing Condoleeza Rice as a “female Darth Vader type that seeks a loving mate to torture”), The Boondocks became a socio-political court jester, calling out corruption and foolishness on a national stage.
Some funny things happened on the way to the Cartoon Network, however, as the transition to Adult Swim saw some … changes from the printed version. First, the freedom of basic cable meant no more of the profanity restrictions offered by newspaper syndication. Many of the voices who supported MacGruder fell by the wayside. However, Adult Swim made the conscious effort to bleep out every curse word … except one. The notorious “n-word” was allowed to fly free (and repeatedly) into the ears of millions of viewers around the world, desensitizing audiences to the term while protecting their delicate sensibilities from words like “f***” or “sh**” (one word’s “not so bad” perhaps? Adult Swim’s subsequent Black-themed animated series Black Dynamite made the choice to minimize the word’s usage and bleep it when it was used, most notably in the pilot).
The most glaring change from strip to screen was the reduction of cast members, most notably leaving out Michael Caesar, who was the common sense counterpoint for the radicalized Huey Freeman and his nihilistic, apolitical brother Riley, who often balanced and grounded the discussion. Likewise, classmates Jazmine Dubois and Snoop Dogg-loving Caucasian schoolgirl Cindy McPherson have largely drifted out of view. Without the larger, more diverse group of voices the discourse became less balanced and more caustic, less political Huey and more Riley as well as … well, this …
A smattering of Michael Caesar’s cleverness and mellowed politics got rolled into the character of Huey Freeman, but on the other end of the spectrum we were treated to the self-hating, overwrought, profane and white loving image you see before you, a broken, embittered pathetic shell of a human being who’s on his way to getting a live action feature film after becoming an unofficial representative for the show, Urkel-style. Promoting the kind of imagery railed against in Bamboozled, the audience is supposed to take the slur-spouting, hate-generating caricature as some kind of satire, but in these days of data overload, the slurs are most of what people hear.
Did something “happen” to writer Aaron MacGruder? Did the overwhelming sums of cash from merchandising and licensing change something in his core, shifting his singular politicized voice into a less savvy, less intelectual collaborative effort? Without a telepath, there’s no way for most people to know. What we can know is that the work changed, the voice changed, and not in a way that history could look back upon and say, “this contributed to the future of a people, but instead could only be said to use America’s never-ending love of Black people being mocked and denigrated to fatten certain bank accounts.
Moreover, how is it that a man with a successful television show available on DVD, with multiple books in print and revenue from years of being nationally syndicated (not a small piece of change) doesn’t have either $200,000 (the Kickstarter’s target goal) in cash or the ability to turn to any of a laundry list of people in Hollywood to just sign that over. There are cars parked at the Standard on Sunset that cost more than that. Crowdsourcing this project implies that there’s something rotten in the animated state of Maryland.
“… it was the first time I felt that someone was not laughing with me but laughing at me …” — Dave Chappelle on why he abandoned his ridiculously successful Chappelle’s Show
For Black people who support this direction, this work, it’s particularly vexing, as it essentially does three things …
- It makes racists think, “we were right, look at the value they as ascribe to themselves!” (obviously paraphrased because, of course, most racists can’t even spell “ascribe,” let alone properly use it in a sentence)
- It gives people who follow a belief that such depictions of Black people are not only acceptable but normal, meaning more degraded and debased examples are needed to escalate in order to be noticed in the future (Eazy E leads to Tupac, Tupac leads to 2 Chainz and Trinidad James, et cetera)
- It makes a certain noxious racial slur so commonplace that it becomes common, throwaway discourse for everyone from Guatemalen-American teenagers playing ball in their back yard to Kevin Smith on a Chicago stage in front of 800 people, opening up the door for increases in its common usage.
What’s most ironic about this is the first voice one would expect to have the right opinions about this sort of thing — not just the idea of an Uncle Ruckus movie (especially appearing, in essence endorsed at the Image Awards by the same NAACP the strip often harangued), but Django Unchained or even the slew of recent pieces noting how few Black people have broken through Marvel & DC’s four-color ceiling — would be Michael Caesar, with just the right amount of wit and wisdom, ready to hand out an Elder Award for how embarrassing this debacle has become.
Perhaps one day, when all is said and done, we’ll uncover exactly where Uncle Ruckus buried him, two lonely dreadlocks still peeking up from the sod.
Hannibal Tabu is, at best, a raving jackass. Father, fan, son, published poet, husband, journalist, brother, web producer, weekly comic book reviewer since 2003, author of the novels The Crown: Ascension and Faraway (both just five dollars) and all around internet gadfly. For more information, visit his virtual clocktower, The Operative Network.