Like Trey Parker and Matt Stone, like Dave Chappelle, Aaron McGruder is a nerve-touching comic force embraced by the younger generations. McGruder's 1996-2006 comic strip The Boondocks regularly courted controversy—partly through its criticism of American political leadership, but more so for its critiques of African-American social responsibility and popular culture. Clearly, McGruder is more than a provocateur. Beside purveying smart and funny humor, he's sincere—and it's always honesty that gets 'em in trouble. The same is true for McGruder's television version of The Boondocks, an animated half-hour for Cartoon Network's Adult Swim that's even more dangerous than the funny-pages version.
The series' hot theme song—co-written by McGruder, "Big Tank" Thornton, and Gabriel Benn, and performed by Asheru—shows where McGruder's heart lies:
I am the stone that the builder refused
I am the visual, the inspiration
That made lady sing the blues
I'm the spark that makes your idea bright
The same spark that lights the dark
So that you can know your left from your right
I am the ballot in your box, the bullet in the gun
The inner glow that lets you know
To call your brother "son"
The story that's just begun
The promise of what's to come
And I'm 'a remain a soldier 'till the war is won
Like his wee alter ego, ten-year-old Huey Freeman (voiced by Regina King), McGruder sees himself as hopefully out of step with society—radical, in fact—self-confident, and determined to effect change by any means necessary (Huey obviously evokes Black Panther Huey P. Newton, and the boy has a Malcolm X poster beside his bed). For contrast, Huey's eight-year-old brother Riley (also King) is enamored of gangsta hip-hop culture, sporting bling and talking of the desire for "paper" and "bitches." In the upscale suburb of Woodcrest, the two live under the guardianship of Granddad (veteran blabberer John Witherspoon), who represents a third, throwback viewpoint that also sends Huey into withering sarcasm and embarrassment.
The series' relevance to the cultural zeitgeist is reflected in the top talent drawn to provide voices. Aside from the excellent regulars, the guest stars include Samuel L. Jackson, Mos Def, Cedric the Entertainer, Snoop Dogg, Donald Faison, Charlie Murphy, Katt Williams, Terry Crews, Busta Rhymes, Mo'Nique, Aisha Tyler, Xzibit, Ghostface Killah, Cee-Lo, Tavis Smiley, and Marion Ross, who busts out some language to make Happy Days' Mrs. C blush.
McGruder's love of anime influenced the strip's style and comes to life in the series (animated in Korea under the direction of Seung Eun Kim, late of The Batman). The style also helps McGruder to sometimes lift the show from essentially grounded territory (reminiscent of King of the Hill's character-sensitive anthropological slice of American culture) into outlandish and violent fantasy (reminiscent of South Park's outre trips).
The second-season opener "...Or Die Trying" is an example of how the two styles can be integrated. At heart, it's a Seinfeldian examination of McGruder's perspective on a contingent of black moviegoers, with Granddad as their worst-case scenario representative. At first, the episode focuses on the horrible entertainment choices ("Soul Plane 2: The Blackjacking!" and the latest Madea flick), but quickly it becomes about Granddad's determination to rip off an industry that owes him by sneaking into the theatre with a supply of soul food (last straw: having to butter his own damn popcorn); two seats down from Granddad, Riley videotapes the screen as Huey stews over being subjected to a franchise that's roughly "as funny as a lynching." Escalating the style to nonsensical adventure, it all ends with an anime-style throwdown between Huey and his nunchuk-wielding "Uncle" Ruckus (Gary Anthony Williams), the theatre's usher.
The character of Ruckus has been a lightning rod. A mentally disturbed black man who thinks he's white and claims to suffer from "Re-Vitiligo," Ruckus spews racist vitriol—but his wrongheadedness is, of course, the point. A comic prism, The Boondocks refracts black culture in a variety of archetypal forms to explore what it means to be black in modern America (there's also the sympathetic, though mocked, character of "Uncle" Tom Dubois, voiced by Cedric Yarbrough). Certainly, the series has been derided by one contingent for its frequent and unapologetic use of the word "nigger." It's part and parcel of the writers' real-life parlance and also his insistence on not sanitizing his cultural critique by removing the "reclaimed" slur from the Boondocks universe.
The series has been criticized by some fans of the strip for variations from the source material and a drift of emphasis from the heroic efforts of Huey. But the second season's two banned episodes answer both of those charges. Nothing could show more fidelity to the strip than two episodes yanked permanently from their primary distribution outlet because they mercilessly satirize BET. Naturally, one of those episodes ("The Hunger Strike") is all about Huey's attempt to uplift the race; the other—"The Uncle Ruckus Reality Show"—takes the character to a logical conclusion of having to face that he's black. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to "speculate" as to the source of the pressure that led to the episodes' banning, since they pull no punches in presenting the executives at BET (including The Boondocks' estranged ex-executive producer Reginald Hudlin) as evil and/or buffoonish.
McGruder, producer Carl Jones, and writer-producer Rodney Barnes don't seem terribly hopeful for a third season of The Boondocks, but perhaps corporate parent Sony will see the wisdom in spinning off the series into feature films. Maybe then Huey, Riley, and Granddad will have something worth leaving the house to see.
The Boondocks—The Complete Second Season arrives "uncut & uncensored" on DVD in a three-disc set. The animation comes through in sharp and colorful anamorphic transfers and adequate stereo sound. There's also a substantial selection of bonus features. The episodes "Stinkmeaner Strikes Back," "The Hunger Strike," and "The Uncle Ruckus Reality Show" get audio commentaries from McGruder, producer Carl Jones, and writer-producer Rodney Barnes. All are engaging and reflective of the team's friendly rapport, but the latter two tracks are particularly of import as the men discuss, as best they can legally, the banning of the episodes. (Those two key episodes also get two-minute introductions by McGruder.)
Disc three houses the lion's share of extras. "Behind The Boondocks: The Making of an American Classic" (17:07) delivers on its promise, though the material is presented in a tongue-in cheek style (Gary Anthony Williams, doing his best James Earl Jones impression, narrates with stentorian self-importance). Participants include McGruder, Jones, Barnes, writers Yamara Taylor and Jason van Ween, Williams, voice director Andrea Romano, co-executive producer Brian Cowan, music coordinator Latif Tayour, and music consultant D.C. "Trouble in Woodcrest?" (4:31) documents a faux feud between Williams and Cedric Yarbrough, as refereed by Romano and McGruder. "What Niggas?" (1:16) is a montage of selections from the show's uses of the "n" word.
A section on "The Cast" offers featurettes on all the regulars: "John Witherspoon" (4:08), with new gabbers Witherspoon and Regina King; "Cedric Yarbrough" (4:12), with Jill Talley adding her thoughts; "Regina King" (3:27); "Gary Anthony Williams" (5:01), "Gabby Soleil" (3:57), and "Jill Talley" (2:18). As usual, Sony includes two "Minisodes": "The Party," from the 2003 series Spider-Man (5:12) and "Rock and Roll Girl," from Season Four of Married...with Children (5:09). Lastly, Sony includes previews for First Sunday, The Cleaner, The Shepherd: Border Patrol, and Stomp the Yard.
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