Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

media and society

-- media and society -- content and character

A day late and a dollar short, but still...

Martin Luther King, Down in the Boondocks
By Lloyd Billingsley | February 8, 2006

"I had a dream once. It was a dream that little black boys and little black girls would drink from the river of prosperity, freed from the thirst of oppression. But lo and behold, some four decades later, what have I found but a bunch of trifling, shiftless, good for nothing niggers. And I know some of you don't want to hear me say that word. It's the ugliest word in the English language."

The speaker was the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., revived from a coma and addressing a television audience in "Return of the King," an episode of "The Boondocks," by black cartoonist Aaron McGruder that aired on January 15, the eve of Martin Luther King day, a national holiday. The hour was late, but people were definitely watching, and not amused by the cartoon King's denunciation of "trifling, shiftless, good for nothing niggers." The next night McGruder found himself on "Nightline," where ABC's Cynthia McFadden tossed the cartoonist an underhand lob, right down the middle of the plate.

"So, your conclusion is that if Martin Luther King returned today, he would be received how?"

"Well, as a traitor," McGruder said. "I don't think his philosophy or even his character would really work in a modern context. I don't even think he would – he would talk fast enough to be able to be interviewed on television because, you know, you gotta – everything is so fast nowadays. And so, I just think he wouldn't fit in. And that's kind of what the episode is about. We sort of explore him and, you know, feeling a bit distraught about where things have come. And we examine, really, what America would think of him if he were alive today.

In other words, McGruder was judging King by the content of his character and found him wanting. It was the roughest treatment of the civil-rights hero since Bull Connor, various Ku Kluckers' "Martin Lucifer Coon" hatred, J. Edgar Hoover's "tomcat" tag, and James Earl Ray's bullet. Rev. Al Sharpton, a veteran of the Tawana Brawley case and a former Democratic presidential candidate, weighed in:

"Cartoon Network must apologize and also commit to pulling episodes that desecrate black historic figures," said Sharpton. "We are totally offended by the continuous use of the n-word in McGruder's show."

Well. I am impressed.

Seldom has one episode generated two such impressive misunderstandings, one possibly inadvertent and one quite clearly deliberate.

If you watch the episode -- and, for that matter, if you actually pay attention to McGruder's response to McFadden's question -- it's clear that he doesn't view King as a traitor, that he's not being harsh about King at all.

He's being harsh about all the rest of us. He's saying that, for all the good that King did, and for all the wonderful things he said, his philosophy no longer seems to speak to Black America the way that it once did. That society has changed in such a way that we might very well no longer allow him to speak to us at all. And that, frankly, is a sad commentary about us and not about Dr. King.

Mr Billingsley quite clearly deliberately mischaracterizes the episode, and McGruder's apparent intent and his response to McFadden's question. The treatment of King by the writers wasn't rough; if anything, especially given the ending of the episode, it was damn near reverent. For that matter, Billingsley's dissection of McGruder is scarcely less distasteful than he alleges the episode itself to be: It was the roughest treatment of the civil-rights hero since [...] James Earl Ray's bullet." What an impressively vile statement to make. (Of course, Billingsley writes for Front Page. This sort of wretched excess is entirely to be expected. Nonetheless...)

As for Sharpton ... while I can agree with him about some things (and despite being manifestly irritated by his political style on many more occasions, even when he's entirely correct), I find that I can't agree with him about this. I can't agree that this was desecration at all, although I understand how he can see it that way. By all accounts, King would likely never have used the "n" word to refer to other blacks -- although I note that in the episode, he only used it to make a particular point, and that is frequently what people of his generation did to make precisely that point. It was used as a pejorative, a way to get other black people's attention and let them know that their behavior was not only wrong, but harmful in a particular social context and way. In the episode, he didn't use the word as casually as everyone around him did, and that seemed to me to be particularly on point.

I do think that Sharpton's misunderstanding is mostly inadvertent. However, by saying, "Cartoon Network must apologize and also commit to pulling episodes that desecrate black historic figures," he comes perilously close to aligning himself with the mullahs calling for Danish heads to roll over the cartoons depicting Muhammed, and for much much less cause.

As for the Boondocks itself, the show? Overall, I'm freely willing to admit that I was wrong about my initial prejudices about the show. Even about Uncle Ruckus. The writing, in general, is fairly sharp and funny. The drawing style works, although the animation itself is frequently very ... 1970s Hanna-Barbera, with the mouths moving and nothing else in the face even twitching when people speak. And I do wish there was more difference in the voices for Huey and Riley; with both being voiced by Regina King, it's harder to make them sound different, other than attitude and speech patterns. But still, even with those caveats, funny and thought-provoking (clearly) and well worth the watch.

One last thing about That Word: McGruder himself draws a line which is beyond razor thin, and I think pretty much insupportable:

Pulse Report: [...] Aaron McGruder Doesn't Use the N-Word [...]; Friday, January 20, 2006

..... Aaron McGruder speaks on MLK episode. "The Boondocks" is at it again. The latest episode had Dr. Martin Luther King coming out of a coma to wake up in a post 9/11 society. In one scene, the legendary civil rights leader shares his disgust on the state of black people, calling the new generation a bunch of "good for nothing niggas." McGruder recently appeared on ABC's "Nightline" to explain his position. When questioned about having Dr. King say the N word, McGruder responded, "We had him saying nigga, we don't use the n word on my show." Later in the episode, King is called a traitor when he shares that one should turn the other cheek when attacked. "[He would be perceived] as a traitor. I don't think his philosophy or his character would really work in a modern context," Mcgruder said in regards to Dr. King. "I don't think he would talk fast enough to be interviewed on television. Everything is so fast nowadays. I just think he wouldn't fit in and that's kind of what the episode is about."

Basically, he's saying that the -a ending versus the -er ending makes all the difference in the world. But television language, as far as the viewer is concerned, isn't written, it's heard. And frankly, you can't really hear that much difference between them. Most people, when they say words ending in -er, actually make a sound somewhere between -a and -er; that's why the variant spelling actually works. People don't, and won't, hear the difference unless you make a particular point of it. And note: if you never ever use the -ER word, most people won't realize that you're trying to make that particular point, ever.

Posted by iain at 03:34 PM in category media and society , television


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