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Aaron McGruder and The Boondocks

the-boondocks-the-boondocks-506048_640_512“You look at society and you're poking holes, not because you hate it, but because you can see where people really need to ask themselves, "What's going on?" Socially and politically, there's so much stupidity out there, and people overlook it or they accept it. I think what the show tries to do is point those things out and make us think about them, even if it's only in our own minds”. – Aaron McGruder

Since the Al Capp created the character and comic striip “Li’l Abner” back in the 1930s, comic strips have pulled double duty as controversial entertainment pieces and humorous tools for social commentary. Comics historian, Rick Marschall says “When “Li'l Abner” made its debut in 1934, the vast majority of comic strips were designed chiefly to amuse or thrill their readers. Capp turned that world upside-down by routinely injecting politics and social commentary into Li'l Abner". Garry Trudeau continued the practice in the 70s when he began penning the strip “Doonesbury” for the Yale University student newspaper, The Yale Daily News. “Doonesbury” is regarded as the comic strip that blurred the distinction between editorial cartoons and the funny pages. Now the world has “The Boondocks” by Aaron McGruder, a cartoonist who also started off writing a strip for a college paper that eventually became widely syndicated and developed into an animated television show. Critics have recognized him as the next big thing in artistic satire.

In an interview, McGruder talks of the early days of the strip and his intent for what it was to become. "Most of the campus strips that were running at the time, they were about beer and sex. This wasn't about that. This was about prickly stuff like politics and race relations, all from the perspective of sub-adolescents. And it was also something most college strips were not: accessible and thought provoking.”

Since the strip’s premiere in a college newspaper back in 1996, McGruder has continually shared his word view through the franchise’s several eclectic and sometimes odd characters, the main one being Huey P. Freeman, a cynical sometimes militant black preteen. Several supporting characters, include Huey’s gangsta music loving-thug-idolizing little brother, Riley and their cantankerous, crotchety granddad, Robert Freeman who share the suburban home and neighborhood that is the inspiration for the name of the show.

Through their, and several other characters’ voices, McGruder has been able to lampoon and provide commentary on issues as widely varied as actress Vivica Fox’s mediocre movie career to the deluge of post 9/11 media coverage to issues he’s had with former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who he considered to be a “warmonger”.

Although critical of Rice, his ideological polar opposite, McGruder was able to compliment her when they met at an NAACP awards ceremony in 2003. “Condoleezza was cool, as a fan" McGruder said of Rice who received the NAACP President’s Award that evening.

Julian Bond, the NAACP Board Chairman was much more generous with the compliments of McGruder saying, “At a young age, he has joined a tiny band of social satirists who use the medium of the cartoon to make us wonder and think. The NAACP is honored to salute him.” Bond then presented McGruder with The Chairman’s Award, which is bestowed for “distinguished service and dignified representation of people of color.”

Almost no one is exempt from McGruder’s satirical skewers. Everyone from R. Kelly to Al Sharpton have been subject to McGruder’s critique by way of Huey and Riley or some other “Boondocks” characters. In 2003, McGruder even devoted a series of submissions about Jayson Blair, the disgraced reporter for the New York Times who was fired when he took credit for work he didn’t actually do and articles he didn’t actually write. Ironically, it was Blair who first published “The Boondocks” back in 1996 when he was editor-in-chief of the University of Maryland's newspaper, The Diamondback.

When McGruder was asked if he worried about offending anyone he explained “it comes with the territory of being a satirist…it’s kinda our job to be out there on the edge.”

Since those days the “The Boondocks” has become a cultural phenomenon that at its peak the strip was syndicated to over 300 clients. But even back then McGruder had plans to expose Huey and company and their views to the public in another, much larger medium.

In 2005, the comic strip debuted as an animated TV show airing on Cartoon Network’s adult oriented programming block “Adult Swim”. While working on the show, McGruder took an indefinite hiatus, from writing the syndicated strip from which he never returned and it was canceled in 2006. The television show has since become somewhat of a cult sensation commenting on a wide range of subjects including; America’s ridiculous obsessions with pop and hip-hop icons, obesity, and even homosexuality in the Black community.  The show which just began it’s third season has continued to both entertain and offend hundreds of thousands of people each year. Mostly from it’s heavy use of the word “nigga.”

McGruder has defended the show’s exhaustive use of the word as being warranted due it being casually used in everyday conversations of many black people in America, thus making the show more realistic. He’s even gone as far as having an episode that imagines Civil Rights Movement legend Dr. Martin Luther King (alive and just waking from a 38-year coma) uttering the word to describe the apathetic modern Black American. When questioned on Nightline about the controversial episode and Dr. King’s questionable use of – as she put it: the “N-Word” McGruder corrects Cynthia McFadden by saying with a sly grin “We had him say “nigga.” We don’t say the “N-word” on my show.”

With the program’s frequent use of the inflammatory word some people find it ironic that McGruder and several episodes of “The Boondocks” has taken media moguls like the former head of Black Entertainment Television’s, Robert Johnson to task for his lack of a quality product and questioning what message the network is delivering. “B.E.T. is what it is; everyone knows what it is...the question is what are we going to do about it?” McGruder asked in an interview with Hard Knock TV.

Johnson has gone on record to say that the network “does more to serve the Black community each and every day than the creator of this feature...has done his entire life.”

The Most Controversial Episodes of “The Boondocks”
"Return of the King" - The episode received criticism for depicting Martin Luther King Jr. using the term "nigga".

"The Hunger Strike" and “ The Uncle Ruckus Reality Show” - Second season episodes so critical of B.E.T. that they were never aired in the United States due to the possibility of litigation. In the one of the episodes, one of the characters relates the mission of BET within The Boondocks universe, stating:
“Our leader Bob Johnson had a dream, a dream that would accomplish what hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow and malt liquor could not accomplish – the destruction of back people.”

“The Trial of R. Kelly” - A deleted scene from this episode depicts Rosa Parks protesting R. Kelly. The Civil Rights Movement pioneer then gets hits and knocked down by a piece of fried chicken thrown by a Kelly supporter. Out of respect for Rosa Parks and her family the scene was removed because Parks had died just weeks before the episode was scheduled to air, but can still be seen on the season one DVD.

Regina King, the actor who voices both Huey and Riley on the show has a different view on McGruder and the impact the show has had on society. “The Boondocks probably opened up a lot of people to caring and thinking about political things. It’s great he’s (McGruder) able to bring a culture in who wasn’t thinking about a politics any other time.”

“The Boondocks” has evolved from a simple college newspaper comic strip whose quality even McGruder said “[doesn’t] measure up to 'Doonesbury” to a third season of a highly acclaimed, award winning series that mainstream media outlets say “is certainly pushing the envelope.”

“The Boondocks” very first episode of the new season continues that effort by taking a look at the Freemans and their neighbors on Timid Deer Lane during the campaign and subsequent election of America’s first Black president, Barack Obama. This particular episode like most others before it, is full of the language and social commentary that has come to define not only the animated series and the comic strip that preceded it, but it’s creator, Aaron McGruder.

The latest episode of Season 3 can be seen here.

By: Jonathan McMillan
Last modified onMonday, 24 May 2010 05:06
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