June 23, 2010


Incisively left-wing cultural productions are a red flag for mass media--this is no secret or mystery. It is precisely this sort of political stigmata that made Aaron McGruder's sublime, early-2000's comic strip The Boondocks such a rarity and a gem. Focusing on the trials and tribulations of Huey Freeman--a ten-year old, self-proclaimed revolutionary Black Chicagoan transplanted into the upper-middle-class white neighborhood of Woodcrest--and his family, the comic more or less served as McGruder's proxy to wax poetics on the contemporary politics of race, class, family, war, nationhood, the media and pop culture from an unabashedly progressive lens. And it was nationally syndicated.

However, this legacy has made its subsequent adaptation as an Adult Swim television show frustrating to watch at times. For practical reasons (animated, half-hour shows require far more production time than do ink-on-paper daily comics) The Boondocks has shifted from a commentary on recent events and news to a multimedia exposition on Black cultural politics. This is by no means an intrinsic hindrance to the show--which has deftly taken aim at class privilege, the commercialism of hip-hop, reactionary patriotism, the "War on Crime," police brutality, the death penalty, internalized racism and more in its 35 or so episodes--but has altered the tone and scope of the program. Moving the limelight to the extended cast has provided a platform to further investigate many of these social issues, but one must wonder if it comes at the expense of diluting the presence of Huey--The Boondocks' McGruder incarnate and in many ways the moral foundation of the entire franchise.

This is no more evident than in Sunday's episode "Pause," primarily a satirization of Tyler Perry, his series of ever-popular plays/movies and his ubiquitous character Madea; The Boondocks treatment offers Winston Jerome as the Perry archetype and Ma Dukes as the theatrical matriarch. Yet the episode's title refers to the vernacular practice in hip-hop culture of disassociating oneself from language that could be interpreted as homoerotic, by quickly blurting the phrase (or alternatively, "no homo") after the purported double entendre. Jay Smooth does a far better job of breaking down the inherent heterosexism and homophobia in this language, so I won't even try:

To recap the story briefly, Granddad auditions for and wins the leading role in Jerome's new play as a romantic interest for Ma Dukes. In the process, he learns that Jerome's theater troupe is in effect a cult, an eccentric cocktail of evangelical Christianity and the veil for Jerome's closeted sexuality--Granddad's role is revealed to be a vessel for him to join Jerome's stable of sexual partners. Huey and Riley intervene, Granddad storms off of the set (with a final "no homo" to Jerome), and the Freemans drive home as Riley watches a video of Ma Dukes attempting to kiss Granddad on stage, literally and vocally "pausing" the video every few seconds.

Winston Jerome as Ma Dukes

What makes "Pause" troubling is that The Boondocks has previously tackled the issue of masculinity and homophobia to great effect. Its other closeted gay character, the rapper Gangstalicious (voiced brilliantly by Mos Def), received a two-episode story arc that touched upon the rootedness of heterosexism in hip-hop culture without falling victim to the woes of intolerance. As the show reveals the inveterate currents of homosociality in hip-hop culture (the camaraderie of brotherhood, the exaltation of prison life, the attention to fashion, etc.) and suggests that hip-hop's homophobia needs a popular, openly gay rapper to break the stranglehold on its ostracization of LGBT people. Gangstalicious, threatened with the exposure of his sexual orientation and confronted by the consternation of his fanbase, chooses to remain in the closet--and the cycle continues.


I enjoyed "The Story of Gangstalicious" not because it circumvents the homophobic attitudes within hip-hop culture (and society at large), but rather makes said attitudes manifest and uses the show as a platform to demonstrate their absurdity--Riley, Gangstalicious's fan and friend, is reduced to tears because he firmly believes that listening to a gay rapper makes him gay too; a fellow rap group hides from Gangstalicious while clad in his new line of gender-non-conforming clothing ("I'm keeping the pearls," remarks one of them, voiced by Snoop Dogg). Huey, the sole voice of reason, looks on in disdain at the hysteria caused by Gangstalicious's sexuality, and it is implied that we should follow suit.

In contrast, "Pause" finds Huey partaking in the rescue of Granddad from Winston Jerome's theater cult, with no clear-cut message that the cloud of "pauses" and "no homos" are the extension of an antiquated social norm. Jerome's sexuality, rather, is lumped in with his otherwise eccentric behavior--say, requiring that his actors forsake their families, or his feud with Ice Cube for the throne of Black entertainment--and his theatrical cross-dressing becomes part of those aberrations.

For the most part McGruder et al's critique of Tyler Perry--formulaic plot lines, adherence to Black stereotypes and colorism, for instance--does remain on point, but the episode robs Perry of one of his core strengths: that a devoutly Christian, straight man can portray a woman on stage and screen and elicit a hefty viewership. I don't think Perry's work is liberatory in the grand scheme of things, but it's a troubling of oppressive gender norms that The Boondocks unfortunately renders as something to be gawked at.

This is not a defense of Perry, nor a condemnation of The Boondocks, which has shown that it has the brilliant potential to poke fun of homophobia and homophobes. It's also a show that involves quite a bit of nuanced understanding, embodying the comic strip's explicit left-of-center stance in more subtle ways. But if McGruder and his fellow producers choose to depict said attitudes towards LGBTQ people without showing the destructive capacity of those behaviors--whether vocally or subtextually--then it's a strike against one of the most consistently progressive voices in the entertainment industry in the past decade.

And that, not Ma Dukes, deserves a moment of pause.

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