The Biafra Obstacle

In 1937, Pablo Picasso completed a painting depicting the bombing of Guernica by German and Italian warplanes at the behest of Spanish Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War. It's an exceptionally powerful piece, not only in its harrowing subject matter, but also because of the way it recalls a specific context to convey its message.

In other words, while many people are familiar with Picasso's cubist style, which forces the viewer to consider the subjects he's depicting (even if it's just in the effort of trying to figure out what it is) -- audiences were in many ways not prepared to see this mural where women and children painted in this style are dying in anguish, innocent victims of a bomb from the sky.
You might not understand Picasso's artistic vision -- but there's really no doubt what is happening in this piece.
In many ways the reason art like this works effectively is because there is a context. A framework that audiences are intimately familiar with to the point where any statement made within those boundaries resonates specifically to their knowledge and emotional feelings about it.

Lets be honest here -- for most of us, the Spanish Civil War is simply a footnote in a history book, but can you even imagine what audiences in Picasso's native home felt when they first saw this anti-war message unveiled for the first time?

But even more importantly than that, Guernica takes a very specific moment in time and makes it into a statement about universal issues. The scene depicted in the mural could be (and sadly, continues to be) anywhere. Knowing the specific history of works like this adds a specific relevance to the images it contains -- but because of Picasso's attention to detail and delivery, the emotional message of the images carries on, regardless of the time.
The reason I bring this up is that I've been thinking a lot lately about art that intends to convey social messages.
For example, like a lot of people my age, my introduction to the music of punk band the Dead Kennedys came during my teenage years. The aggression in the music, hell even in the name of the band tapped into frustrations I was feeling at the time.
And yet, none of it would have mattered all that much if I didn't like the songs.
It's one thing to name your band something offensive or say combative things in your lyrics. Teenagers in garages across the world have been doing that for ages. But it takes a special dedication and touch to come out with music that's angry and entertaining. Informative and danceable. Timeless and yet specific.

The Dead Kennedys sang songs about being an intellectual in a world of plastic people. Of existing in a world driven by herd mentality, corporations, news services, and governments who operated unchecked because people were distracted by the flashing lights and soothing sounds television and pop culture. The band's fiery leader, Jello Biafra was a whirlwind of pent up frustrations and anger -- and yet even within the ramped-up confines of punk rock he approached most subjects with a sarcastic sneer and what seemed to be a level of control that many of his contemporaries could even contemplate.
Much like the Sex Pistols before them -- The Dead Kennedys
had no problem at all presenting an "Us versus Them" viewpoint.
Preppies, Middle American values, and Reagan were the enemies -- and in many ways, those who were indifferent to their evil were just as much to blame as the puppet masters pulling the strings.

So as much as I liked the music on the albums, it would be impossible for me to deny that part of the reason I liked the Dead Kennedy's so much (especially in my younger days) was that I connected in some ways to the specific messages in the lyrics.
I felt like a part of "Us" -- even if it was just in the way I was angry at all the "them's" out there.
..Then I saw them in concert.
Actually to be more specific I saw Jello Biafra. As much as I would have loved to see the Dead Kennedys during their heyday, the opportunity did not present itself. I did, however, catch a performance Jello Biafra gave at Club 5 where he performed several of the band's songs with a different backing band.

Knowing how political Biafra was, I expected it to be a charged evening. But what I wasn't prepared for was what seemed to be half-hour breaks between each song where he lectured the audience ad nauseum about the efforts of certain California politicians to shut down free press outlets and independent farming concerns before cataloging in detail his anger over several Senate sub-committee proceedings he had caught on C-SPAN earlier that day in his hotel room.
I hate to say it -- but it was one of the most boring punk shows I've ever been to.
I don't know, does it make me more of a poser and less of a punk
that I really just wanted to hear the songs and have a good time?
There's a unique challenge when attempting to spread messages through your art that comes when either one of those two ingredients overpower the other. People like intelligent art, but intelligent people don't really like to be preached to.
It's one of the reasons (especially in this country) that satire is so popular.
By taking everyday situations or mindsets and ridiculing them from the inside out -- satirical comedies speak directly to the intelligence of the audience viewing them. You have to understand the context of the joke in order to get it. As such, much like punk rock and hip-hop, effective satire is as much subversive as it is funny.

For example, one of the best shows on the air right now in my opinion is The Boondocks, an animated series based on Aaron McGruder's long-running syndicated comic strip of the same name. The show (and the comic strip) follows the experiences and adventures of an African American family named the Freemans as they navigate their way through a modern world where racial attitudes are as much a marketing tool as they are a source of personal identity and pride.

During it's first two seasons, The Boondocks animated series raised several eyebrows and caused a fair amount of controversy for it's no-holds barred approach when it comes to controversial language and subject matter. Whether it's exposing the continued commercialization of African American culture for profit or highlighting the divisiveness that seems to perpetuate various facets of Black society in America -- The Boondocks attacks topics with both guns blazing. And yet, all of this is accomplished with a satirical wink -- frequently painting it's characters as getting swept up into fads and cultural crazes in order to show how ridiculous so many of these things are (a cultural woe that's certainly not limited to just African Americans).
The results are frequently hilarious, but make no mistake -- there's a lot more going on here than just jokes.

                                    -- NSFW language
The Boondocks is harsh. It's unapologetic. But above all, in the past two seasons despite the barbs and knives and racial slurs that creator Aaron McGruder has freely thrown at his own people -- I've always gotten the sense that underneath it all was a quiet sense of optimism.

To me -- The Boondocks always offered what seemed to be an outstretched hand to those willing to listen. Even if that offering of guidance came after a half hour of slapping the subject across the face because they were acting like an idiot -- The Boondocks almost always seemed willing to take that the first step of holding up a mirror and urging it's audience to open up it's eyes and see past the glittering surface that's so often presented to them.
Which is in many ways made it's third season premiere so shocking.
After a long hiatus from broadcasting new episodes, The Boondocks made it's highly-anticipated return last weekend with an episode centered around the excitement surrounding the 2008 election of Barack Obama to the presidency of the United States as viewed through it's varied cast of characters. [Spoilers Follow]

As the episode progresses, a German documentary filmmaker voiced by Werner Herzog follows the progress of the campaign by capturing the attitudes and reactions of not only the Freeman family, but of their neighbors and friends -- all of whom represent varying facets of the African American community.
What follows is the gradual building of excitement and false expectations as the idea of Obama is painted as becoming more important to the African American community than the actual politician that was running for office. Character after character in their own way reacts to candidacy in terms of what it would mean to them personally, of their own expectations for personal change. It's a cleverly veiled jab (at least in my opinion) at the machinations of politics as a whole, but more specifically speaks to a side of the Obama campaign machine that clearly led him to an unprecedented place in history -- but may have also built the personal expectations of his own constituents so high that there's no possible way for him to ever succeed enough for everyone, regardless of what changes he actually brings to the country.

The episode joys in satirizing the a pop culture phenomenon Obama became -- including a clear shot taken at Will.I.Am and others like him for using the excitement of the campaign to bring themselves more popular exposure (echoing sentiments I've made about that particular artist for a while) -- despite in many cases not even knowing what his political views were at all:
While each character represents and in many ways parodies a given attitude or facet of the community -- the show's conscience has always been 10 year-old Huey Freeman, presented early on in the episode as a "domestic terrorist" that Obama himself condemns and disavows himself from despite the fact that the two are friends on MySpace.

Huey's character from the beginning of the show has been one of dissatisfaction with a people he knows can be better, although in a touching bit of hubris -- frequently suggests that his own sense of radical Afrocentrism-inspired thinking is the solution, even though it makes him seem largely out of touch with everyone around him and turns him (in the words of Herzog) into "The [..] most depressing fucking kid I've ever met in my life."

And yet despite all this, Huey frequently exists as the show's voice of reason. The only clear-headed mind in a room all too frequently full of sheep. As a result, Huey's utter indifference to the election as a whole and to Obama as a phenomenon initially comes off as shocking. In other words, it's surprising to think that this wouldn't be a big deal to this character -- even if it were for completely different reasons than it is to everyone else.
But time and time again when asked, his response is nothing more than "Eh."
In a telling scene, a man attempts to sell Huey commemorative Obama dinner plates, and when faced with Huey's lack of interest becomes angry and eventually draws a crowd around him with similar sentiments that eventually reaches a fever pitch and attempts to physically attack the Freeman family for not being excited enough about the prospect of this countries first African American president.

This is followed naturally by a media blitz of criticism aimed at Huey for his attitudes, as if not being excited about Obama (especially as an African American) was not only an insult to everybody out there who was, but in many ways tantamount to supporting the opposing party.

It's a powerful message, and an arresting one -- as McGruder (via Huey) attempts to remind us of the way so many of us forgot that it was still a politician underneath all the hype, and that even if long-overdue, the election of a black president alone would never be enough to save a country awash in it's own selfishness.

Unfortunately, as good as it can be -- The Boondocks biggest flaw has been it's inconsistency. Sometimes choosing to be too silly and lighthearted to carry the weight of it's own messages, while at other times so preachy and heavy-handed that it's simply a chore to watch. Whether it's delving too deep into minor characters just for their comedic value or laying on the guilt so heavy (the death row episode comes to mind) that it's hard to know whether to laugh or not.

At it's best, The Boondocks strikes an even balance between the two. Offering sobering viewpoints in the aftermath of cartoonish violence and consequences to the situations the characters often find themselves in.
As a result, I found myself let down in some ways by the ending of this episode.
Make no mistake, I was engaged throughout and had a great time laughing at it all -- but when the German filmmaker returns to the Freeman's neighborhood in the current day to find them all less than satisfied and even dismissive of Obama's actual efforts as a president (Robert Freeman eventually admits that he didn't even vote for him) -- the microphone is again given to Huey, who is offered a chance to give his thoughts on the matter --
Which he all but passes on completely.
For that response to simply be a two word dismissal, "I'm Retired" seemed like a cop-out.

Or perhaps better said -- as a viewer, I was hoping for far more balance from the storyline that I eventually got. Huey's viewpoint of apathy seemed to come from a realized stance. From a basic common sense realization that no matter the color, politics is little more than a game to some people. But for Huey to simply pass on commentary in a show that had presented nothing but evidence of why all the excitement was short-sighted and shallow and that a larger truth was out there needing to be delivered was really frustrating.

At an earlier point in the episode, upon contemplating leaving the country over the election -- Huey's character says "What's the point of talking if nobody ever learns?"
But after all of the exposition, all of the washing away of the artifice and hype -- when the opportunity
to speak to an audience with open ears does comes along -- the show leaves us with virtually nothing.
At it's simplest, it feels as if the writers simply decided not to take a stance -- which seems ridiculous knowing what show this is and the direction this particular episode took. But when you consider it little further -- it comes off as if (despite the character's unwillingness to commit an opinion either way) perhaps The Boondocks is somehow anti-Obama.

And while it's certainly possible that show creator Aaron McGruder isn't a supporter of the Obama administration, it's been made more than clear over the years both in the show and the comic that he was all but vehemently opposed to the ideas of George W. Bush. It's also interesting to note that Regina King, the actress who provides the voices for both Huey and Riley Freeman was a highly visible supporter of Obama's campaign, even stumping for him at several events leading up to the inauguration.

Either way, the ending of the episode was clearly a place where the audience was looking for resolution. As if the entire story had been presented in many ways like the Martin Luther King Jr. storyline -- where an event that would seemingly unite a community instead brought out many of the worst facets of that community, leaving the perfect opportunity for a voice of reason to knock some sense into everyone's heads. In other words, the entire episode felt like a buildup to something bigger. To a discussion about the nature of change, and how it takes more than one person, or election to accomplish it.
But to leave the audience with so many unanswered questions instead of a deeper
question to consider left me feeling really frustrated about the episode as a whole.
Of course, a big part of the reason I say this is because (as longtime readers of this blog surely recall) I supported Obama's campaign, I voted for the man and in many ways still hold out hope that his political visions will come to pass. Even as it's clear that his presidency so far has been something less than the campaign promises -- I still believe in what I voted for.
So perhaps in the end -- the suggestion that Huey Freeman of all people has given up on America simply because Barack Obama was elected president is not only disturbing -- but also doesn't really make a lot of sense.
It's one thing to disagree over politics. As hateful and as emotional as those disagreements can get, that's part of the system that was put in place in this country. Revolutions need to happen in order for this nation to survive. When you look at it a certain way, American Democracy is sort of a perpetual dissatisfaction engine -- with two factions pushing and pulling policy and action back and forth, keeping the rotors turning year after year.

But it's quite another to take the time to write, draw, animate, and give a voice to an elaborately crafted statement about an event of such historical and cultural relevance that reveals reason upon reason why one version of events was blinded by it's own selfishness that they couldn't see the bigger truth -- and then hold that very truth hostage at the end.

What I love most about The Boondocks is the way that it makes you think. The way it fosters communication. I remember during the first season having all sorts of discussions with my students (I was still teaching 8th grade back then) about the episodes. We'd laugh at the jokes, but then frequently we'd talk about the themes. I'd spend teaching time explaining some of the metaphors, and the kids would tell me who some of the rappers the characters were supposed to be making fun of were.

As a result, I can't help but wonder what other people thought about this episode. If they saw it, what they thought about it, or if their reactions were any different than mine. As much as I enjoy the show, I know that opinions vary. It's also impossible to ignore the fact that as a white man, the commentary and context of the satire contained in The Boondocks affects me differently than it does the actual intended audience. Did this episode perhaps play differently to African American viewers than it did for me (and if so, how)?
Was the context so different for others that the satire was more effective?
Or were you like me wondering why they decided to cut it off where they did?

[Listening to:  Peeping Tom - "We're Not Alone Remix (feat. Dub Trio)" ]

Comments

Heff said…
I didn't know there was gonna be a test !!!
Bef said…
interesting read...I don't watch the boondocks...yea I'm probably the only black person in the universe that doesn't...I don't find it all that "great".... eh

my son watches it though...but I doubt he thinks that deep about it
unMuse said…
I never took the ending to reflect an "anti obama" sentiment. I took it more as commentary on a depressing realization that even though he IS a black man, he is just another politician who is completely out of touch with those he worked into a fever pitch about change. I think, it's more the commentary on the fact that it's harsh realization that even "one of our own" doesn't really care as much as everyone wanted to believe. On this sentiment I relate because how much many women expect a woman president to change things when, in fact, she'll just be "another politician".

Or... maybe it just leaves the end open for people to decide what to do, or he doesn't feel society has really learned anything, or maybe instead of standing on that stage like Biafra (I was at that show) and preaching until it was noise.
unMuse said…
(apparently the xanax I took to stop me from being a total c*nt while quitting smoking also stops me from finishing sentences.)

..preaching until it was noise, he let the uncomfortable ending speak volumes for how it doesn't matter what anyone says, in the end it's all the same bs we get wrapped up in. (be that politics, relationships or whatever)
Hex said…
Hey gang, it's Hex here with a Message from the Editor -- please keep the comments coming on this post, I'm really interested in your opinions on this subject.

But for even *more* discussion, feel free to check out Oh Hell Nawl, who were kind enough to re-post the story on their site as well.

http://ohellnawlblog.com/newohnblog/2010/05/04/from-guest-writer-hex-the-biafra-obstacle/
Van said…
This is a lovingly written post, replete with plenty of research. I appreciate this!

I was not surprised by Huy’s indifference in this episode for the following reasons:

- Aaaron McGruder has gone on the record more than once stating that he’s “cautiously pessimistic” about Obama’s ability to make real “Change” as president.

“I did say I was cautiously pessimistic about Obama's Presidency - but this is simply acknowledging the reality of an American Empire that is out of control and on the verge of collapse…I do not believe the financial and corporate interests that own and control this country will fold so easily. I do not question the integrity of the man as much as the power of his office....I believe the Federal Reserve Bank, the Military Industrial Complex, and the massive corporate interests that run this country have more power than our new President. I hope I am wrong.”

Source: http://www.bet.com/News/NewsArticleAaronMcGruderObamaComments.htm

Although to be fair, McGruder’s stance on Obama is Wishy-washy:

- In this interview [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhe04ikezjU ] McGruder admits,
“I am going to vote for Obama…but that doesn’t necessarily mean I think it’s going to mean anything…I like Obama. Obama is a black person who is not going to embarrass you. And that’s what I look for in a black leader. It’s hard to find!” [laughs]

When asked if he thinks Obama will win he swiftly replies, “No. But I hope he does.”

For the most part, Huy is the mouthpiece McGruder uses to voice his opinions in the animated series. I agree that he could have let Huy get on his proverbial soap box like he has in past episodes and comics and shout his opinions. This is what we love about the character, how he’s not afraid to say exactly what he feels and what others are afraid to say.

On the other hand, I can understand that leading up to the production of Season 3 and during the production of the premier episode McGruder was hounded and questioned thousands of times about his opinions of Obama, especially because of his anti-Bush standpoint in the Boondocks comic strip. By now he’s very disenchanted with the whole thing. He can’t say anything more about President Obama but “Eh.”

And maybe I’m wrong and it truly is an actually cop out. Expectations were high for what Huy would say about Obama being elected as president, perhaps the writers feared they could live up to the high expectations.

I still support to "Eh" theory. McGruder is likely tired of the questions and the hype.

/End perspective from this Latina comic book nerd.
WhatIGotSoFar said…
Is it just me, or is this just a really long post so Hex can find some sort of artistic justification for him liking an animated black child calling white people honkies and crackers?

Okay, seriously, I didn't watch the clip. I'm on a dial-up connection with no sound. But I will say this. The moment entertainment tries to make me think, that's the moment entertainment fails. Show me Bugs Bunny in drag fooling Elmer Fudd, show me Homer Simpson falling down a gorge, show me Al Bundy marveling at a toilet in his living room. Don't make me think. TV isn't supposed to make me think. When I want to think, I turn the television off. But as long as the television is on, my brain isn't.
Hex said…
Heff -- I don't feel tardy. I brought my pencil. Give me something to write on, man!

Bef -- It's actually a really good show. Probably one of the smartest animated series going on right now.

Unmuse -- I can see what you're saying there. The more I reflect on it and the more people I talk to, the more it seems like he was leaving it up to the viewer to realize that always waiting for that speech at the end is in a lot of ways equivalent to waiting for one politician to fix the world, regardless of his background.

Van -- Thanks for pointing out all those links, that was fantastic. Especially in the way it suggested a lot about McGruder's feelings about the whole thing prior to the time they made the episode.

WIGSF -- I don't mind TV making me think in the same sense that I don't mind a painting or a song getting my mind working on a topic. It doesn't always happen, and I certainly don't *need* it to happen in every show I watch -- but whenever something inspires you to think about a topic or your feelings on something I think it's a good thing.
Satorical said…
I don't believe you, WIGSF, but I think your quote is pithy. In my opinion, you're underselling the characters you mentioned. It's the characters that make those situations funny. Punchinello/Punch & Judy shows have things hitting each other, but they're not very funny, because we don't give a shit about the characters. When Al Bundy marvels at a toilet, it's funny because he's been so emasculated in every other way: that's his last vestige of manhood. There's similar backstory to the other examples you mentioned--yes, even Bugs and Elmer. If you didn't know who there characters were and what they stood for, you wouldn't give a shit, and it wouldn't be as funny.

In short, you're underselling it, not underthinking it. I'm overthinking/overexplaining to point out why.

And to avoid getting back to work...