Power to the People
The second season of The Boondocks begins with all kinds of noise. Specifically, it begins with a faux trailer for the dreaded sequel to Soul Plane, starring 50 Cent as a mumble-mouthed air marshal, set against some dark-suited jihadists. The trailer narrator goes through all the action-pic motions, establishing the threat (a “blackjacking” plot) and the ingenious convenience of CPT. How can anyone hijack a jet that runs on CPT!?
Typically, the season premiere, “Or Die Trying…,” manages multiple targets, taking aim at the easy-mark Soul Plane, as well as its crass marketers and ignorant consumers, not to mention post-9/11 hysteria and racism and their double-crass marketers and fearful believers. With that, the camera cuts to reveal the audience for this trailer—the Freemans on their sofa. Huey is predictably insulted and dismayed and Granddad is predictably enthusiastic, singing the theme song as he makes plans to see the film as soon as he can. Jazmine happens by just in time to acquiesce to the outing, and so the scene is set for a not-so-updated version of “Sneaking Into the Movies.”
The difference is that Jazmine is so worried about getting into trouble (“You’re ruining my innocence”) that Granddad can’t just enjoy either his thrilling illicitness or the show (and he does love “a coon flick,” observes an acquaintance). Instead, he must attend to the child’s nervousness, insisting that their matinee is legit and he’s paid for their tickets “on the internet,” patting his pockets periodically as if searching for his purchase. When they arrive inside the theater, with pockets full of meatloaf and mashed potatoes for treats, Jazmine is increasingly unnerved by the several announcements concerning the severity of her crime (stealing movies is a felony, “like murder”). “We put our lives on the line every day to make movies,” asserts a stunt man, apparently devastated by pirating. Poor girl’s big green eyes brim with tears.
Her upset has little effect on her fellow felons, as Riley hunkers down in his seat to videotape the screen and Huey urges one of the ushers to join a union (he’s inclined primarily because his silly red uniform causes him something like despair: “I look like a fucking dork!”). Here The Boondocks again lays out the options for resistance, as Riley and Huey embody them. You can defy the rules outright and individually, because the rules are unfair and perpetually serve those in power, or you can organize, rouse a community, and try to change the rules so they benefit those feeling disempowered.
While it’s clear enough that baby thug Riley does not represent viable resistance, he provides a sort of pleasure, mouthing off to authorities whenever he gets the chance, cynical, cocky, and following Granddad’s presumptuous lead. Huey’s perceptiveness and general level-headedness situate him as viewers’ primary point of identification, angry about what is but also frustrated with Granddad’s insistently wrongheaded rebellion. As the boys hold their positions, so does Jazmine: again the passionate idealist who doesn’t quite comprehend the contexts, she provides something like an emotional ground for the swirling political arguments. (Or, as Riley declares when planning his getaway from the theater, “She the weak link, she’ll slow us down.”)
As always, the adults provide the show’s least attractive possibilities, slow-walking, fast-talking jokes. (Here Granddad is again set off by Uncle Ruckus, who shows up as an usher, a.k.a., the movie police.) When Huey complains that the first Soul Plane was “about as funny as a lynching,” Granddad recalls a time when he witnessed a funny lynching, instigating a raucous, nasty flashback that begins with a display of verbal wit, or at least some skillful use of the n-word by one Roscoe Patterson, soon turned around by the white gang who use the word with more vehemence, as they chase him off screen. “It wasn’t really funny after that,” sighs Granddad.
This is ever the fine line for The Boondocks. While it plainly challenges lazy thinking and tiresome stereotyping, it is regularly accused of either offending or inspiring, resisting or perpetuating the “coon flick” conventions it displays so acutely. The controversy is good for business, a means to highlight generational differences and start conversations. The movie industry is easy to indict, exploitative, cruel, and careless en route to making money. And so is TV.