Birth of a Nation
Like Huey Freeman, the central character in his Boondocks comic strip, Aaron McGruder is somewhat contrarian. In his strip, usually through Huey’s voice, he has questioned the motives of both George W. Bush and BET president Robert Johnson. He has criticized elements of hip-hop culture for glorifying violence and greed, and also called Bill Cosby on the carpet for being out of touch.
McGruder’s targets are frequently political, which led some newspapers to suspend Boondocks after its harsh criticism of Bush post-9/11. If anything, Boondocks hit back harder. Some people don’t understand McGruder’s humor, and some think the strip belongs with editorials—a la Doonesbury—rather than the daily funnies. “If you get the political message more than the joke, it doesn’t mean the joke isn’t there,” McGruder says. “That’s the problem with all humor, especially when you’re dealing with a very, very massive audience. What’s funny to some people is not that funny to others.”
According to McGruder, most of his targets try to contact him in some way or another. Generally, he’s too busy to pay attention. He’s currently on a book tour for a new graphic novel, Birth of a Nation, co-written by writer/director Reginald Hudlin (House Party, The Great White Hype, Serving Sara), and illustrated by Kyle Baker. At press time, McGruder was close to a deal with the Cartoon Network for an animated version of Boondocks to hit television next summer. All of this, plus the pressure of a daily comic strip keeps him from focusing much on any backlash.
“I’m completely isolated from all that,” he says. “I don’t read fan mail, I don’t read hate mail, I don’t talk to the newspapers. The only time I hear or think about my own strip is when the news calls and wants me to comment on something. I don’t really get feedback. I don’t really want it. It kind of complicates the creative process.”
That’s not to say that McGruder doesn’t turn his razor-edged satire on himself. Boondocks jabs at itself frequently, mostly in clashes between Huey and his granddad. “You have to go into it not taking yourself too seriously, being able to laugh at yourself like you laugh at other people.” he says. “Sometimes people don’t get it because it’s done pretty subtle, but it’s there.”
Birth of a Nation continues the contrary streak. The story follows the citizens of East St. Louis as they secede from the United States following a close national election in which their votes somehow aren’t counted. East St. Louis becomes “Blackland,” complete with its own president, bank and a military made up of former street thugs.
The graphic novel’s caricatures of the U.S. president and his cabinet, as well as some of the events surrounding the election, make obvious the object of the satire, even if the names are changed. “It’s obviously based on the current administration,” says McGruder. “But I think just in terms of going back, if people read it years from now, we didn’t want it to be so nailed down to 2000, 2004, that it seemed really old.”
Birth was originally conceived by McGruder and Hudlin as a screenplay (the title references the 1915 racist silent movie of the same name); a book deal was a more certain bet, however, and the product could be rolled out faster. McGruder admits there are still obstacles to overcome in Hollywood. “I don’t think there ever is an easy time to try to sell a political comedy,” he says. “[The studios are] just very risk-averse, and they look at anything political as being risky. They look at anything black that costs over six million dollars as being risky.”
For McGruder, risk is part of the process, a matter of following his instincts and hoping success follows—given that a comic strip like Boondocks, dealing with race and politics, was a long shot to make it into national syndication. “You kind of have to do it every day,” he says. “So you can’t sit back and worry about what the market will bear and try to shape your work around that. You’ll end up doing contrived, insincere art, which I think is not as good and therefore hurts your chances to try to get wherever you’re going.”