Cultural Critique / Politics / Pop Culture / Random Thoughts from an Uppity Negro / The Color Line

A Character Case Study of “The Boondocks” and Riley Freeman: Is He Homophobic or Just Comic Relief?

[Editor’s Note: This is the first of five installments of character case studies on characters on creator and writer Aaron McGruder’s comic strip now turned animated series on Adult Swim, “The Boondocks.”  I feel that each of the characters epitomize a particular social and political archetype or stereotype that is represented in some aspects within the black community.]

For a quick background for those totally unaware of “The Boondocks” who are reading this, check the Wikipedia link.

Riley Freeman, is the younger brother of Huey Freeman and both live with their grandfather out in the suburbs.  In the cartoon, Riley always has cornrows and his outfits usually embody stereotypical “hood wear” which could be a simple wife beater and jeans, chains, oversized jackets and other over-sized shirts.  What sticks out about Riley is the fact that he easily becomes the poster child for what Average Bro and many others simply call “Negro Nonsense.”  Riley’s grammar is fractured (he can’t seem to get the concepts behind conjugating “to be” when he speaks), he is enthralled with the “gangsta” lifestyle to a fault.

The redeeming qualities of Riley are few.  At best Riley’s innocence does come through at times, or the fact that he’s still a child.  For example in season three’s “Smokin With Cigarettes” when faced with the reality of a gun while dealing with Lamilton Taeshawn, or the many instances that their grandfather actually is heard giving Riley a spanking for his behavior.  While Riley may give off a larger than life persona, he’s still just a kid and all of that comes out at the right time.

For the sake of this character case study I’ve embarked upon, I want to highlight the latest episode “Pause.”

The show opens up clear that this show is about parody Tyler Perry and probably Tyler Perry plays.  A woman dressed much like Tyler Perry’s main character “Madea” come out on a stage and the name has been changed to “Ma Dukes” and he/she’s carrying a pistol and shooting played by Winston Jerome. And you can hear what’s probably Riley in the background snickering at the play.

Turns out to be true.

Robert “Grandad” Freeman is going to audition for a casting call of 50+ older black men “who are not allergic to baby oil” and clearly Huey is giving the whole Winston Jerome play and Grandad a second look over as if to say “WTF?”  So Grandad stands up and the following exchange ensues:

Robert: I gon’ really let him have it. Show him my stuff. Give that man everything I got.
Riley: Pause.
Robert: Pause? Pause what?
Riley: You said somethin’ gay, so you gotta say “no homo” or else you a homo.
Robert: But what did I say gay?
Riley: You said you was gon’ give this dude everything you got. No homo.
Robert: That’s not gay. I said I was gon’ give the man everything I got.
Riley: Pause, Granddad. If it sound gay, its gay and you gotta say “no homo”. How I know you not a homo Granddad, if you don’t say “no homo”.
Robert: I’m not sayin’ “no homo”.
Riley: Okay, you a homo.
Robert: Stop callin’ your granddaddy a homo!
Riley: Then say no homo!
Robert: I don’t wanna say “no homo”! Imma homo yo’ ass, if you don’t stop sayin’ pause!
Riley: . . . . Pause.

Frankly, I laughed.  And I laughed pretty hard.

But then I started wondering, was I supposed to laugh?  Was I supposed to think critically about this and not laugh, but rather be saddened by the sheer absurdity of Riley’s homophobic response?

I did my post about “pause” and “no homo” within the last month or so and for me there’s no way around it because when you say it, it places homosexuals and supporting members of the LGBT community into an “other” category that breeds homophobia and does nothing for bridge building.

This episode just laid the homoeroticism on real thick. But, I think a point that I haven’t heard much discussed is how the black Christian religious life was at play here.  The Tyler Perry being gay rumors aside, I just think the writers gave an interesting commentary on the complete interweaving of sexuality and black religious thought.  This was evidenced by the fact that when Winston Jerome asked Jesus for guidance that as Jesus appeared as quite white, with blond hair, that he was to acheive this goal of writing plays to women by using “sexy men” and “crossdressing.”  To which a befuddled Robert says “I didn’t know religion worked that way.”

And the one liners also aided in the interesting juxtaposition of religion and sexuality within the black Christian religious community is evidenced in the one liners

  • When talking to one of the young ladies on the stage set she said “Now I only give up the ass for Jesus–and his homeboys.”
  • Winston Jerome claims to hear from Jesus about kissing Robert in the play, and naturally Robert balks at the thought, Jerome takes him into his study and says “Jesus wants us to be actors first, and heterosexuals second.”
  • And from “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” parody of “Time Warp” the song “It’s Alright to Crossdress for God.

Not to mention that Robert hears the “womp womp” similar to the adults in the “Peanuts” comic strip when prayer is going on, or that the cast members are portrayed as zombies who had left their families to join up with Winston Jerome; this one lady in her two lines, she finishes each statement “I’m get me some kool-aid.”  The final scene really shows that Winston Jerome made this all up just so he could sleep with men.

Yup.

So, Riley, who doesn’t have the world’s biggest role in this episode acts as a mirror image of how some of the homophobia is interpreted in the eyes of the black male community, particularly a black male demographic that has some innocence still attached to it.  We see that innocence come through when he and his brother without question go to rescue their grandfather, and even when Riley without question hugs his grandfather before they leave him to pursue his own dream of fame and stardom–to which he adds “No homo.”

The question posed asks to the homophobia of Riley or is it simply comedy.

I think the safe answer is both.  We live in a society where blunt truths have been very hard to swallow, and comedy has proven to be a way to deal with them.  The racial comedy of Dick Gregory, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle (hmm, where are the women?) has all used sheer comedic genius.  One of my followers @stupiddopemoves on Twitter observed, correctly I might add, that the funnier the comic, the more true the joke probably was.  The more we laughed at the one liners, and the word plays, the more real the show was for us.  Yes, comic relief is fine, but one needs to allow the comedy to transcend the moment and become reality.

I think most comedians know what they’re doing–hell they wrote the jokes.  And in the case of Aaron McGruder and his character of Riley, he’s forced to walk that thin line between buffoonery comedy and comedy that makes you laugh, but feel guilty at laughing because you know better.

So the next time you watch “The Boondocks” and you look at little Riley, push past the in your face stereotypes and try and deal with the seriousness of the situation.  Ask yourself what have you done that has contributed to the homophobia that has allowed colloquialisms like “no homo” and “pause” to be so prevalent in young black males. Such shows require us as black American viewers to operate in a dual consciousness that some of us already do automatically and others do so painfully.

Perhaps the real question is what is Tyler Perry’s reaction?

What is your take on the question? How do you feel about Riley Freeman?

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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9 thoughts on “A Character Case Study of “The Boondocks” and Riley Freeman: Is He Homophobic or Just Comic Relief?

  1. When I look outside my window I see the Riley pf America. He is the kid my kids got ot school with. He is the teenager walking down the street. He is the guy I went to high school with that hasn’t grown up yet. I have seen many guy friends of mine fall right into homophobia. If they deem it even remotely questionable then the gay tirade begins. I like Riley for the fact that he is the total opposite of his brother. Yes he does embody the “hood” persona, but it’s reality. Not the most positive of reality but it is real.

    Peace, Love and Chocolate
    Tiffany

    • @Tiffany

      I posed some of these questions to my twitter community and another forum, and most people I think were a bit too quick to label the “Riley” character as the average black male–or at least stereotypical black male. And I had a slight problem with that. You know why? Because I don’t know “Riley.” In fact I know “Huey” and even better, I know Riley’s friend “Michael Caesar” who didn’t make it to the cartoon, as a slightly more positive opposite of Huey.

      Just interesting to see how we view these characters

  2. I think McGruder has done a masterful job this season of intersecting and blending various cultural sources for each episode. In addition to Tyler Perry Productions, I think another source for this episode was this Current TV clip: http://current.com/shows/infomania/91120515_thats-gay-no-homo.htm.

    Based on this “report” from the folks at ‘That’s Gay’, the question for Riley (and mainstream rappers ) is not just whether they’re homophobic, but whether they’re protests (no homo / pause) reveal the homoerotic undertones in their public personas and (potentially) homoerotic sexual desire in their private lives.

    I think you’re on to something on the “innocence” piece. I think Riley represents an “innocence lost” for at least a generation. His homophobia is so convoluted because anything that resembles human virtue (love/temperance/justice/courage/etc.) is “gay” to him. That’s why Huey is “gay.”

    That said, I think “Pause” is highly problematic on several levels, but is no less brilliant as McGruder continues to be a provocateur of discussion through his work.

  3. I think Riley is 1 / 5th of negative characteristics that we black men have in america. I also want to add Robert, Stinkmeaner & Thugnificent to that pie as well. You have baby dumb nigga in Riley, Old dumb nigga in Robert, crazy ass dumb old nigga in Stinkmeaner & average dumb nigga in Thugnificent. The Black community needs more Hueys & Toms. Even though I don’t really like Tom because he is passive, he is a successful black man & chases are Jasmine will end up with a black guy, so that’s half of the negative cycle fixed. Riley is a knuckle head & we all know plenty of those. Its a good thing Robert & Huey keep him in line

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