For a while now I've had a love-hate relationship with Aaron McGruder's The Boondocks. I loved The Boondocks as a newspaper comic strip and raised hell trying to get my local "fish wrap" to carry it. I've found The Boondocks cartoon on the Cartoon Network's Adult Swim lineup to be occasionally funny and other times totally laugh-free. One recent episode, during which thug wannabee Riley goes on a vandalism rampage with a psychotic classmate who arms himself with a gun, was more depressing than amusing. In its third (and last) season, The Boondocks has been divided between the misses and the hits.
But when it does hit, The Boondocks draws blood. Last week's episode, where McGruder ripped into Tyler Perry for his crappy plays and movies, was one such example. It had me laughing — but for all the wrong reasons. It was a crude and obvious shot at Perry, characterizing him as a down-low, predatory homosexual and Jesus-peddling hack. For now you can still catch all 22 minutes of the frivolity online, but the link might go dead at any moment.
More details from the L.A. Times:
In "Pause," an episode written by McGruder and executive producer Rodney Barnes that aired Sunday, a thinly disguised version of Perry named Winston Jerome is positioned as a closeted, cross-dressing cult leader whose love of the Christian faith is a mask for his true sexuality. Though the character bears little physical or vocal resemblance to Perry, the reference is obvious to those familiar with Perry's work. The dancing Ma Duke is a clear parody of Madea.
The Jerome character wears a pink sweater, is surrounded by bare-chested muscular men and constantly proclaims his love for Jesus even as he attempts to seduce Granddad (John Witherspoon), the guardian of the two boys, Huey and Riley Freeman, at the center of the series. The fame-hungry Granddad is trying out for a part in Jerome's new play, Ma Duke Finds Herself a Man.
Near the end of the episode, Jerome bluntly asks Granddad for sex; the old man responds, "Do you mean to tell me that this whole cross-dressing Christian cult crap is just so you can sleep with men?" "Uh, pretty much, yeah," says Jerome. The episode marks one of the sharpest public criticisms of Perry. Huey Freeman calls the script for Ma Duke "terrible." The Perry brand has also been blasted by some critics and entertainers, such as Spike Lee, who say Perry's projects perpetuate negative stereotypes and present a narrow view of African American life. McGruder and executives for Turner and Adult Swim declined to comment on the episode. Representatives for Perry did not return phone calls.
There are news reports that Perry was so incensed by the episode, he fired his entire writing staff. Did McGruder have some inside information about how things work on Team Perry? Then again, considering how lousy Perry's TBS comedy House of Payne and his movies are, maybe he should have fired his writers a long time ago.
McGruder is probably safe from any threat of litigation from Perry, as parodies and satires of public figures are legally protected speech. McGruder is probably feeling rather pleased that his put-down of Perry hit him where it hurts. Still, if the rumors are true (and rumors are all they are at this point), it would be pretty cold if Perry bounced a bunch of writers during this rocky economy because he suspected one or more of them ratted him out.
Perry has become wealthy and powerful by taking some of the broadest oversimplifications about black life and turning them into empty entertainment. There's no questioning his popularity and that millions of people enjoy his simplistic morality tales. And what's wrong, anyway, with faith-based messages of fidelity, family and honoring one's commitment to their spouse and religion? Perry's greatest crime is shallowness, and that makes him a prime target for McGruder's less-than-tender mercies.
While McGruder is on point taking Perry to task for overloading his films with Silly Negro foolishness, he's equally guilty of falling back on it himself. There's not a show on television that tosses around "nigga" as casually as The Boondocks. Having previously offended some viewers with Rosa Parks being bopped by a flying piece of chicken while protesting the R. Kelly trial, McGruder upped the ante by raising Martin Luther King Jr. from the dead to denounce black folks as "a bunch of niggas," all for laughs. That little lapse of bad taste would land the Boondocks on Time's Top 10 Most Controversial cartoons. Al Sharpton came calling to demand an apology from the cartoon's producers. McGruder would go on to incorporate the controversy into a later episode. No sense letting a perfectly good backlash go to waste.
What makes McGruder so good at what he does is he's a first-class satirist and he doesn't care if nobody else appreciates his sense of humor. A satirist isn't the same thing as being a comedian. Comedians try to make people laugh. Satirists try to make people think. Sacred cows make the best hamburger, according to Mark Twain, and like Twain, McGruder is butchering whatever trend, fad or personality wanders into his sights. In the transition from three-panels on newsprint to 20 minutes of celluloid, The Boondocks lost much of its cutting political wit and all of its topicality. Some of its rude humor still remains, though sporadically, and the Perry episode proves McGruder can still bring the pain.
This is supposed to be the third and final season of The Boondocks. Having given up the comic strip years ago, McGruder hasn't said what his next move will be. I can't imagine that a moderately successful cartoon would justify an animated film release, but if Marmaduke and the Smurfs can be turned into a film, anything can. Why not go all the way and make it a live-action movie with Jaden Smith as Huey Freeman? Or is that too rude and edgy a character for any child of Will Smith to play?
In the Perry-McGruder beef, my sympathies are with McGruder. I defend Perry's right to make whatever kind of movies he wants to. I also defend McGruder's right to call them crap. I only wish I felt a little better about it.
That's the problems with these cranky young curmudgeons. They make themselves awfully hard to defend at times.
Jeff Winbush is a freelance writer and the former editor of The Columbus Post newspaper.