In the premiere of the cartoon series The Boondocks (Cartoon Network, Sundays, 11 p.m. E.T.), a black servant at a garden partyâ€”jealous of new black neighbors who’ve ingratiated themselves to his white bossâ€”takes the stage and does an impromptu song: "Don’t Trust Them New Niggers Over There." One young white woman looks at a friend, tentatively, then concludes, "I think the ‘n’ word is OK, as long as they say it." Then they give him a big round of applause.
Aaron McGruder, who created The Boondocks as a comic strip, must have been anticipating the reaction of much of his own audience. The premise, like that of the strip, is that brothers Huey and Riley Freeman are taken in by their grandfather, who’s moved from the city to an upscale white suburb. But the show, airing on late-night cable, takes the strip’s provocations even fartherâ€”especially in its language. In one scene, Granddad warns the kids not to use the n-word, and Huey counters, "Granddad, you said the word ‘nigger’ 46 times yesterday. I counted." "Nigger, hush!" Granddad says.
Boondocks is more than the sum of its slurs. The comic stripâ€”funny but sometimes wordy and stridentâ€”benefits from the extra flesh on its characters. Militant Huey and his hard-edged little brother Riley are both voiced by Regina King (Ray), who gives them sweet voices (Huey, though he’d hate to hear it, sounds a little like Michael Jackson) that contrast unsettlingly with their cynicism. Huey’s narration of the show has a kind of hip-hop Dickens ring: "My grandfather, Robert Jebediah Freeman, after a lifetime of odd adventures and strange mishaps, decided to spend his last days in the warm embrace of suburbia." And the animation, with its expressive eyes and dramatic use of shadow, turns the strip’s mild Japanese-anime influence into a full-on, visually arresting homage.
But it’s Granddad (voiced by John Witherspoon) who really comes alive. He’s moved to the ‘burbs to enjoy the good life and emulate his materialistic white neighbors, but he’s no Uncle Tom, just a canny realist. "The new white man," he lectures his grandkids, is subtle and refined and must be handled differentlyâ€”for instance, by offering him gourmet cheese. "You give the meanest white man a piece of cheese," he declares, "and he turns into Mr. Rogers!" He’s also a resolutely old-school parent, as he proves when he sees a white woman losing control of her bratty son at a Whole Foods-like yuppie market. "Have you ever tried beating his ass?" he offers chipperly, handing her his belt.
The Boondocks sometimes stretches to be controversial; a storyline making fun of Rosa Parks (which Barbershop did years ago) was cut after the civil-rights’ pioneer’s death. But while it may be a stretch to equate them, it’s fitting that The Boondocks should debut just after Parks’ death. She was known for launching the fight for blacks and whites to share space. The Boondocks captures, savagely, how half a century later, they are both integrated and thoroughly separated. On the one hand, there are the black characters, who throw around "nigger" not caring how white folks will take it. And then there are the white neighbors, who annoy Huey because he can’t get a rise out of them, even when he tells them Ronald Reagan was the devil. "They’re rich," Huey grumbles. "No matter what happens, they’ll just keep applauding."
In Granddad’s day, he faced white people with attack dogs and water cannons. (Well, not literally. In a flashback, he misses his big chance to be a martyr at a protest rally when he goes home to get a raincoat, knowing there will be firehoses.) In 2005, Huey is learning, the white people’s water cannon is blissful, cocooned indifference. But The Boondocks is an angry blaze it will be hard to squelch.