'The Boondocks' Creator Aaron McGruder Tells Us About 'The Uncle Ruckus Movie'
I chatted with the creator of 'The Boondocks' about black self-hatred, post-Obama race relations, and why Herman Cain is the real-life Uncle Ruckus.
It's always scary when Hollywood tries to bring your favorite comic and cartoon characters to life in live-action films. For every success story like Sin City, there are innumerable steaming piles of shit like Aeon Flux. So when I heard there were plans to pull Uncle Ruckus from the pages of The Boondocks and put him on the big screen in a live-action R-rated comedy, I had a lot of questions. Uncle Ruckus isn't just any ordinary fictional character, and The Boondocks isn't your average comic strip and animated series. The Boondocks, now in the middle of producing its fourth season for Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, is one of the few programs on television that uses scathing satire to make you laugh and think critically about racial issues, politics, and modern life in America. And Uncle Ruckus—the white-people worshipping one-eyed right-wing nut job whose name has superseded "Uncle Tom" as the preferred pejorative for black sell outs—is probably the show's most compelling and painfully hilarious character. When I first heard about the proposition of The Uncle Ruckus Movie, the last thing I wanted was for Hollywood to swoop in and make a quick buck by cashing in on the laughs Ruckus's racist barbs garner, without delivering the more thought-provoking messages on race relations that we get in The Boondocks comic and show.
Then I saw the teaser below, and all of my doubts were put to rest. In it, actor Gary Anthony, who voices Ruckus on the Adult Swim series, appears in full Ruckus regalia, equipped with a rotund belly and the signature snaggletooth. It looks perfect. And most importantly, Boondocks creator Aaron McGruder is spearheading the production, ensuring that it will be smart, confrontational, and funny, instead of a soulless cash grab.
To raise funds for the production of The Uncle Ruckus Movie, Aaron's team has launched a Kickstarter. They're only about halfway to their goal of $200,000, and there is only a week left to pledge. So hurry up and contribute because if they don't hit their target by March 1st, the project won't be funded, and we'll never get to experience all of the new and awful ways in which a real life Ruckus can racially berate his fellow human beings.
I used this exciting news of The Uncle Ruckus Movie as an excuse to badger Aaron McGruder's press people until they let me talk to him for a half hour. We chatted over the phone about the new film, the origin of Ruckus, and a bunch of other things like black self-hatred, post-Obama race relations, and why Herman Cain is a real-life Uncle Ruckus.
VICE: How did you know you wanted to make a movie about Ruckus?
Aaron McGruder: It started with the fact that I’ve never had a real interest in doing anything live action with Huey and Riley, because they are impossible to cast. Even if we found two perfect kids, they would grow out of that perfect state pretty quickly. The animated series really made it impossible since their voices have been established in the minds of the fans. If you deviate from that, people are going to hate you.
Why was Ruckus different?
Well, we could still use the same voice actor from the show. Gary Anthony Williams is a brilliant actor. He gives that character a lot of charm and depth that Ruckus doesn’t seem like he should have. Having Gary play Ruckus could make it an accurate translation from animation to live action. It’s an odd idea, but the more we explore it and we see Gary in character interacting with real people, it really works.
How did you develop Ruckus’s character?
It came together in pieces. The Boondocks were just being formulated and a couple of my friends were talking shit and someone came in and said, “Aaron, you should make a character named Ruckus after this nigga.” For some reason, that stuck with me. That character was created at roughly the same time as the others, but he didn’t make it into the strip until a few years later. The first time I drew him was probably 2003 or 2004, when we were making the pilot of the show. I was setting up everyone and I drew Uncle Ruckus. I started with the big eye.
How did you know that Gary was perfect as Uncle Ruckus?
He came in and auditioned. We spent a long time auditioning people. But of all the characters, he walked in and that voice came out right away. There wasn’t much debate about it once he opened his mouth. I think Gary’s one of the most talented people in the business. He’s got a unique sense of humor. He is on the level of Stephen Colbert or Ricky Gervais—someone with their own, unique thing that can’t be replicated by anybody else.
What set Ruckus apart from the other characters?
He’s a character that was ahead of his time. I look at the world today, and it is surprising how much Ruckus is a character for the times. Even more so now than Huey and Riley’s granddad.
I came up with Ruckus before the Tea Party, and before Herman Cain. But in the post-Obama era, half the country became Uncle Ruckus. The world is more polarized and extreme. Ruckus embodies that. I remember watching CNN when Herman Cain was the frontrunner for the Republican party, and they did a segment on whether Herman Cain was Uncle Ruckus. [Ed. note: This segment is no longer available online.] They brought in an expert and had pictures of them side by side... I couldn’t believe what I was watching. When Ruckus was first introduced, he felt like a funny, fringe character. He was bizarre and really extreme. Now, he feels like he represents a lot of right wing ideology. It’s crazy, but the times caught up to him.
Is it hard for you to write the dialogue that he speaks? It can be pretty brutal and filled with self-hate.
No way. It’s a lot of fun. It’s so big and so broad and so crazy. But we’re still mindful of how far is too far. You never forget that there’s a line and you have to figure out how and when to cross it. But no, as vile as it all is, it’s actually a great time.
Are you afraid that some white people are so stupid they’ll watch the Uncle Ruckus character because they agree with him without realizing it's satire? And would that undermine your ultimate purpose?
Yeah, there are a lot of people who like The Boondocks for the wrong reasons. And a lot of people who don’t like The Boondocks for the wrong reasons. Just like there are people who think that Stephen Colbert is a real conservative and a lot of people liked All in the Family because they liked what Archie Bunker thought about the world. They didn’t get the irony. When you’re doing this kind of work, that’s unavoidable. The people who don’t get Uncle Ruckus and say, “That’s racist, I will never watch that," don’t see him as a commentary on right-wing ideology or racism or self-hate or anything. They just say, “Oh. Racism. Bad.” It's the same thing with people who go, “That guy’s making fun of black people. I like that. I also don’t like black people.” They’re not getting it, either. But I don’t worry about it. It’s one of those things that you know is going to happen.
As a black man, the self-hate aspect of Ruckus is one of the things that really makes him so powerful to me. Is there a way for our people to get beyond that?
It’s difficult to say. Culturally, things move slow. You hope that people evolve. Uncle Ruckus represents an ignorant past that we can look back and laugh at because we are a long way away from it now. At least, that’s what you hope... But I think part of why the character is popular is because a lot of us know somebody like him. We know black people who are stuck in the 1800s. All of their anger and rage at being black in America has somehow been redirected back onto other black people. But guys like Herman Cain make you realize that this self-hate is still alive. We see them in very public roles. The fact that Cain was the presidential frontrunner says a lot. Maybe we’re not as far removed from that mentality as we’d like to think.
How do you go about repairing the damage for future generations?
There’s no real answer other than time and progress. Everything fades into memory eventually. I think we are still plagued by contemporary versions of the after-effects of slavery and that is where this mentality of Uncle Ruckus comes from. There’s so much language that’s used in the political discourse that harkens back to the height of segregation and Jim Crow. Food stamps, government handouts, “They just want Cadillacs…” America has to move past all of that and become a more civilized place. Everything else is just time.
Is it good to forget the past? Or does that mean we are destined to repeat it?
Generations die off and new ones come along and they really don’t know what happened before. That can be good because they don’t have the baggage. But as long as we’re still stuck, as a country, in such a rudimentary way of thinking about race and politics and all of that, it will continue on.
Connecting that idea of baggage—was that what led you to think a black man could never be president in this country?
I think the idea of a black president seemed so impossible because I thought about the president as the person with all the power. At a certain point you realize that he doesn’t have the power. When Ruban Studdard was going against Clay Aiken, there was the debate about whether there would be a black American idol. Ultimately, there was one, but what difference did it make?
You don’t think having a black president made a difference?
I got into a lot of trouble when he was inaugurated, because I asked broader questions about the American political voting system. If the Bush election was rigged and the whole process was never fixed, then in order to be true to myself, I have to assume that the shit’s never been fixed and it’s still being rigged. I certainly don’t put any real weight in it. People are easily manipulated by emotional cues. You have to be vigilant. When Bush was president, I had a lot of sympathy for the red states. Just imagine, with Fox News, the power of the propaganda those people were subjected to. It’s difficult for anybody to withstand. Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, they just continuously batter the brains of the people.
I campaigned for Obama the first go-round. It was definitely a rude awakening to realize everything wasn’t going to be perfect after he was elected—some things have even gotten worse.
Yeah, the feel-good onslaught that having a black president concludes the narrative of hundreds of years of the civil rights movement was really powerful. People wanted to believe it. They wanted to embrace it. It got to a point where there was no point in talking about any of the issues anymore because everything boiled down to being for Obama or against him. My general belief is that it’s by design. Our belief that everything is OK now works in favor of the people who actually have power. Even the question of whether his presidency is any good, I hate to say it, but it doesn’t matter. I look at the president like a landlord. He’s got some power. But does he own the building? No.
But is he any good?
[Laughs] I don’t want to go on record bashing the president. It’s not about that. When I was young, I prided myself in being informed and following the news and current events. Nowadays, the more you do that, the dumber you get. I couldn’t follow the race this year. None of it was serious—not the news, the campaigns, or the candidates. I had to turn it off.
But you love politics?
I’ve done political satire for so long that I have said everything I’ve wanted to say. I have nothing left to contribute. That’s what makes Ruckus interesting. He’s relevant to the times. For the most part, I’m trying to figure out how to become the best at telling stories. But politics do not interest me anymore. I did it when I was interested in it. I did it probably as much as anyone should do it. But I quickly saw where the public discourse was going. It doesn’t feel like anything I want to be a part of. When Herman Cain was the frontrunner of the Republican party, I was looking at him like, That’s Uncle Ruckus. This must be a joke. Now, I guess I’m the crazy one because I can’t take Uncle Ruckus seriously. But I refuse to humor any political party that involves Uncle Ruckus. I just checked out of the whole thing. I won’t watch Uncle Ruckus run for president.
Support the The Uncle Ruckus Movie by donating to their Kickstarter, here.
Want more from Wilbert? Check these out:
- Race and Health
- WILBERT L COOPER
- Vice Blog
- Uncle Ruckus
- The Boondocks
- Aaron McGruder