Minorities in cartoons: “The Boondocks”

The Boondocks
(Left to right) Riley, Caesar, and Huey.

This week’s entry is Aaron McGruder’s 1990s-2000s comic strip-turned-TV series “The Boondocks.” The strip (as well as the later TV series) is political in tone, commenting on African-American culture and politics.

The strip focuses on the Freeman family: “Granddad” (as the grandkids call him) and his two grandchildren, Huey and Riley, who’ve relocated from Chicago’s south side to a mostly-Caucasian middle-class suburb. Like most cartoon and live-action sitcom children, Huey and Riley bear only passing resemblance to real-world grade-schoolers, with both embodying (or parodying) elements of Black American culture.

Huey is militantly political (and Afrocentric), and has little time for things he finds frivolous, though Huey is occasionally seen trying to shirk household chores (such as mowing the lawn). He also has a tendency (along with Riley and later character Caesar) to watch various lousy summer blockbuster movies or, occasionally, in-universe awful TV shows. Huey constantly talks to all around him about the injustices of the world toward Black Americans, as well as criticizing elements of Black culture he finds foolish, such as BET (which got criticized very often in the strip). During one Christmas storyline, Huey suspects Santa Claus (after initial skepticism of his existence) of sinister Illuminati associations. Yes, he did the “criticize the song lyric ‘he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake’” bit…

Meanwhile, Huey’s younger brother Riley is the polar opposite, embracing every negative Black stereotype of Black male youth—Riley’s disinterested in anything remotely “nerdy” (reading, school, etc.), listens to hardcore rap music nonstop, steals things, and is constantly in trouble. His goal in life is (as one strip put it) to be “the guy that finally gets away on ‘Cops’,” plus have all the money, cars, and women he sees rappers in rap music videos possess.

Both children lack parents (for unexplained reasons in the strip), and are raised by their grandfather, Robert Freeman, aka “Grandddad.” Granddad reflects the stereotype of the old-fashioned, cranky elderly African-American man, sometimes seen about to spank Riley with his belt (usually after Riley does something particularly egregious, such as blowing up their kitchen). One strip shows his frugalness, with Granddad trying to do Tae-Bo to the infomercial rather than buying the videotape. Of course, Granddad ends up hurting himself in the process.

Other characters populate the strip, including Huey’s best friend, Caesar (who shares Huey’s political opinions, but is more optimistic/cheerful), and Jazmine, a biracial girl who lives next door (and is bewildered by Huey’s political remarks/pessimism).

“The Boondocks” was subject to much controversy during its newspaper run (which ended in part so McGruder could focus more of his energy on the TV spinoff), including after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Some papers ran the strip on the op-ed page, similar to how “Doonesbury” is carried by some newspapers.

The strip was turned into a TV series for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim lineup in 2006. Most of the elements of the strip were carried over into the series, though a few additions were made. One such addition was the character Uncle Ruckus, an elderly man who believes in every negative old-time stereotype about African-Americans despite being Black himself. The series, now with three seasons under its belt, has gotten its own controversy like the strip, with BET complaining about a few episodes criticizing the network (ironically, “Boondocks” reruns now air on a BET subsidiary channel). The animated series won a Peabody for its episode about Martin Luther King.