Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Monday, April 12, 2004

media and society

-- media and society -- radical alienation

The Radical (The New Yorker, Issue of 2004-04-19 and 26, Posted 2004-04-12)

...[McGruder] told the guests that he'd called Condoleezza Rice, the national-security adviser, a mass murderer to her face; what had they ever done? (The Rice exchange occurred in 2002, at the N.A.A.C.P. Image Awards, where McGruder was given the Chairman's Award; Rice requested that he write her into his strip.) [...] Last October, McGruder granted Condoleezza Rice’s wish and put her in the strip. In the Monday installment of a weeklong series, Caesar announced that he had a “simple and easy plan to save the world.” On Tuesday, he elaborated: “Maybe if there was a man in the world who Condoleezza truly loved, she wouldn’t be so hell-bent to destroy it.” Huey agreed. “Condoleezza’s just lonely and bitter,” he said. And so on. The boys began composing personal ads: “Female Darth Vader type seeks loving mate to torture”; “High-ranking government employee with sturdy build seeks single black man for intimate relationship. Must enjoy football, Chopin, and carpet bombing.” Huey even anticipated his critics—this is a favorite device of McGruder’s—by observing, “What I really like about this idea is that it isn’t the least bit sexist or chauvinistic.”

Some readers accused McGruder of effectively calling Rice a lesbian (both McGruder and Greg Melvin, his editor, insist that this never crossed their minds), while others complained that the joke was indeed unacceptably sexist and chauvinistic. The Washington Post’s executive editor, Leonard Downie, Jr., thought so, and he withheld the entire week’s worth of “Boondocks”—the longest such suspension in the paper’s history. (The Post’s ombudsman, Michael Getler, later sided with McGruder, writing that he “found the sequence of strips within the bounds of allowable satire.”)

McGruder, true to form, was unchastened. A month later, Huey and Caesar were still trying to find Rice a date, and in the course of their continued plotting they’d managed to call Ann Coulter a man and to suggest that Larry Elder is gay.

I think this would effectively land in the "be careful what you wish for" category, yes.

I have to admit, it does baffle me that McGruder is still actively trying to get a Boondocks show and/or movie produced. As he himself notes, he pretty much makes a cottage industry out of roasting the hell out of almost every black celebrity in Hollywood, including the few who might ever want to be associated with him. There are likely a lot of people who probably won't touch him until and unless his concepts prove out; association with him may well be the kiss of death to getting your own projects produced, given how assiduously he's working at alientating people in Hollywood, and how well that project seems to be going.

It will be interesting to see how much longer The Boondocks continues. If he could get the sort of deal that Berkeley Breathed had with Outland -- writing one Sunday strip a week -- it would probably be better for both him and for the strip itself. All that said, I have to admit, I'm vaguely looking forward to "Birth of a Nation" graphic novel that he's got upcoming. The concept of "Blackland" alone will have people enraged.

The article does have one or two factual errors here and there.

It’s been twenty years since “Fat Albert,” the last black animated series on a major network, went off the air, so the prospect of “The Boondocks” going to prime time is significant.

This, depending on what exactly they mean, is simply factually wrong. Poor Eddie Murphy. (Now there's a line you never think you're going to say, is it?) He voiced a character in a stop-action animated series called The PJs (as well as being executive producer on the show) which started on that self-same Fox network, moved over to the WB after Fox cancelled it, and then vanished into obscurity. Funny or not (and mostly, it wasn't), it certainly deserves to be counted. Unlike the original Fat Albert series, it started out and stayed in prime time during its entire run; "Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids" started out and stayed a Saturday morning series throughout.

All that said, what they apparently plan to do to The Boondocks to bring it to television sounds simply vile:

If there are two models guiding the show’s development, they are probably “The Simpsons,” the beacon of virtually all televised satire and animation, and, paradoxically, “All in the Family,” the seventies sitcom starring Carroll O’Connor as the bigoted Everyman Archie Bunker. McGruder has frequently been told by studio executives that they’re looking to re-create “All in the Family”—to be just controversial enough to draw attention, that is, without getting kicked off the air, by creating another Archie Bunker type, a “character who just spouts off ignorance.” He finds this line of reasoning suspicious. “As I understand it, the creators and the networks originally thought, O.K., well, this show’s going to be great, ’cause everybody’s going to get the joke that Archie’s a lovable idiot, and people are going to look at it as a satire of racism,” he said. “They found out that the reason people loved the show is because they agreed with Archie Bunker.”

The strategy for the “The Boondocks” revolves, in part, around confronting this fact head on and—what else?—undermining it. Among the new characters that McGruder and Hudlin plan to introduce is a neighborhood handyman called Uncle Ruckus—“just the worst, most bitter, angriest motherfucker you could imagine,” as McGruder sees him—who will serve as the town bus driver, the school janitor, the local gardener, the babysitter, the massage therapist. “Everywhere you look, he’s there,” McGruder said, almost giddily. “This guy just loves all the little white children in the neighborhood”—Uncle Ruckus is black—“and he’s basically straight out of the eighteenth century. I mean, he is a slave.” Uncle Ruckus brings a new, fully realized archetype to the varieties of haters in McGruder’s universe; he is “the world’s most self-hating black man.”

Who on earth would be the audience for a show with a major character like that? Why would any black people anywhere want to watch "the world’s most self-hating black man” do anything? Given that he's likely to be the object of unceasing mockery, what nonblack people would want to watch, even if they agreed with the character's views? Given that the character's contact is apparently mostly with children, McGruder is going to have to be very careful about whatever message he wants to send with this character. Moreover, in order to make him work -- in order to pull the audience from the comic strip along -- they'll need to introduce him into the strip itself. That will likely alienate the readers as well. It just seems a terribly wrong-headed way to take the series.

The article, overall, makes it sound like McGruder is burning out very badly on The Boondocks, that the seven-strips-a-week demands, plus all the other things he's trying to do are simply dragging him down.

Posted by iain at 01:45 PM in category media and society