Aaron McGruder of ‘Boondocks’ on Working with George Lucas and His Future In Comics
Red Tails, the George Lucas action adventure about the Tuskegee Airmen, opens this weekend after twenty years in development. The project features a cast and crew of notable black talent, and one of the names on the project that has drawn the most eyebrows is co-writer Aaron McGruder, creator of the popular comic and cartoon The Boondocks, which courted acclaim and controversy with McGruder’s biting satires and blunt opinions on everything from Ronald Reagan to corporate media to Tyler Perry. One of his favorite targets was none other than George Lucas and the “Star Wars” franchise, a property McGruder had grown up loving and repeatedly took to task for becoming soullessly corporate and racially insensitive. In spite of his critiques, he jumped at the chance to work on Red Tails when Lucas personally sought him out, and their complicated relationship has made the creative team-up a unique pairing.
During an interview with CA sister site Moviefone in promotion for Red Tails, McGruder spoke in detail about his collaboration with George Lucas, offered his thoughts on the changing audience of geek culture and explained why he and The Boondocks probably won’t return to the world of comics.Moviefone: I had no idea you were involved in “Red Tails” until your name came up in the credits and it took me by surprise, honestly.
Aaron McGruder: A lot of people didn’t know. I came on to the project kind of late so it really wasn’t public knowledge until the trailer and posters started coming out.
MF: It’s interesting that it was actually George Lucas who personally reached out to you.
AM: Yeah, this was after principal photography; [director] Anthony [Hemingway] was already done with all his duties, and I was brought in in 2010 to initially to do some minor tweaking and punch-ups, but I started working with George and I had some ideas, he liked those ideas, so we ended up doing more. It was very cool.
MF: How crazy was the experience of working one-on-one with George Lucas?
AM: It was a big deal. I followed this project, pretty much for the twenty years that it existed. I first heard of the Tuskegee Airmen when I was ten years old, and I was probably a teenager, when I first read that George was doing it. You never think you’re going to work on it, you just think “Oh, this will be cool.” You look forward to seeing it, and be happy that somebody is going to tell the story on that scale. They called and a week later I was there at the ranch. What I did a lot of, was listen to George in terms of what he wanted out of the movie and I think the more he talked about it, it was not exactly the movie he had. I think the movie he had was a very serious historical drama, and I had always envisioned it more like Star Wars, particularly the old Star Wars, the first one. I think that’s what George wanted to. It was a question of “How do you get there while still respecting the weight of the subject matter?”
MF: You’re a huge Star Wars fan but you’re also someone who parodied Star Wars calling Lucas out for the racial stereotyping of Jar Jar Binks. In the NY Times profile on George, they asked if Jar Jar ever came up and you said “no.” But did you get any indication of his sense of humor regarding Star Wars parodies and criticisms?
AM: No, I really didn’t. It’s obviously the elephant in the room, and I get why you’re asking, but I went there with: “He’s the boss, he’s giving me this huge opportunity, and he’s the studio.” He’s the actual studio. They didn’t need me on this project; I was asked to show up and I genuinely wanted to do the best job I could for the movie. I really appreciated the opportunity. I was really happy that George and I clicked creatively, and I had that experience. He allowed more changes to be made than originally intended. I went there with the idea: “I am not going to deviate from the plan at all, not go into fanboy mode, I’m not going to go there.” [Laughs]
The movie is bigger than George because it is about the Tuskegee Airmen who were heroes to me most of my life. This is going to be their movie, and I wanted to do the best job I could. Being a Star Wars fan — I mean come on. I got plenty of Star Wars fans to talk to about Star Wars.
MF: In the Times profile, you’re quoted as saying the black audience hasn’t had “the John Wayne treatment.” And this movie very much feels like a John Wayne throwback. The challenge to me is how you can get a modern audience — especially a young audience — to buy that sincerity without rolling their eyes and laughing at it. Is America too cynical to accept clear heroism like that at the movies?
AM: It is a very serious tonal choice that George had made already. I was the cheerleader to that. “Yes, go in that direction, do that.” Nobody’s more cynical than me. About everything.
But my first memory in life was three years old: my dad took me to see Star Wars and it’s not just the first movie I remember, it’s my first memory. If you ever watch Boondocks, a lot of times it does become more of an action comedy than just a pure comedy. I’ve always had a passion for all that, and it was a big deal to get the call. In terms of the tone, coming from the comic book world, that’s what I wanted to see. I think that part of me weighed over the cynical satirist. When it came to these guys, you had the opportunity to tell a clean story with over-the-top heroes and a simple Star Wars good vs. bad thing. The more comic book-y the better.
The big challenge with George knowing so much about the history and having a very personal relationship with these pilots for so long, was I think he just got overwhelmed with trying to do right by these guys. I came in with fresh eyes and ears, as someone who still loves the first movies and I wanted to do anything I could to get George back into that place of capturing that charm. I feel there’s a charm to Red Tails that I haven’t experienced in a long time at the movies. I’m hoping that kids go to this movie without that grown-up cynicism. If you’re my age, just enjoy the ride and have the experience that we had when we first saw Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark. That would be 100% the goal. I feel like the history is easy to put out there, there’s already a familiarity with it, or at least the broad strokes of racism and segregation. Some people are going to like this tonal choice and some people are going to say, “Oh it should’ve been heavier and it should’ve been more dramatic.” But there’s a version of this that doesn’t have to be Saving Private Ryan. We can be Star Wars, as crazy as it is.
MF: We’ve seen so many clear anime influences on “The Boondocks” and so many references to Star Wars in the original comic strip. What else shaped your your geek upbringing?
AM: The biggest thing is Star Wars. It was Star Wars and comic books, mostly because I was into illustration, I wasn’t the guy who knew everything about the X-men or Superman or Spiderman. I used to work at a comic book store in high school, but I was more interested in the illustration side. The other big thing was Charles Schultz and Peanuts. And all of those animated specials together. As a kid, there was a lot of Jim Henson and a lot of Speed Racer. As I grew up I developed an interest in Garry Trudeau, and that’s what took me into the direction of being a syndicated cartoonist. Anime obviously was a big influence; anime is really Japanese animation directors imitating American cinema, so it all ties together in a sense. Boy, I really was a geek.
MF: Do you have any plans to return to cartooning in the near future? I was a big fan of Birth of a Nation. Are you looking at another graphic novel?
AM: Birth of a Nation was a script; we really wanted that to be a movie. We had the opportunity to turn it into a graphic novel, and that was great, but my focus is pretty much entirely on television and films, and to continue to be employed in Hollywood.
MF: Where do you think the creative opportunities lie in cartooning right now? Pundits say “print is dead.” Did that push you away from the Boondocks strip?
AM: My issues were totally about: one, I just burnt out on the strip and the deadlines were brutal. Two, I didn’t feel like there was much of a future in print. I thought I needed to quit because I saw the newspapers slowly going away. I didn’t want to be caught off guard. I felt more comfortable being a screenwriter, and as I learned how to become a producer, it seemed like a more natural fit for me than cartooning. I still do animation, and I think animation will always be a part of what I do, but I’m trying to do more live-action stuff and I think that’s really going to be my focus.
MF: Do you have a preference between animation and live-action?
AM: It’s whatever is the best tool to tell the story. I don’t nearly have as much experience with live-action as I do with animation, but ultimately storytelling is storytelling.
MF: Talking about the broader idea of geek culture: I feel like it’s predominantly driven by white older males. It’s marketed to them first, and then it trickles down to every other demographic. The white older male is the stereotype of geek culture. Do you see that evolving?
AM: I don’t think the word is “stereotype.” I think you’re more referring to a center of gravity. Just look at the epicenter of what that world is, between George Lucas and Marvel and DC comics, that whole world is predominantly white men. But the truth is, now, particularly because of the last decade where it became very profitable in Hollywood, geek culture is so all-encompassing. It has become this pervasive thing through American pop culture as a whole. Everyone has their different versions on it.
There’s a lot of geek girl stuff: Tokidoki, Hello Kitty, it’s creeping into the fashion line with Black Milk, which is just super cool. You go to Comic-Con and see a cross section of everybody. It used to be niche, and now it’s so enormous that it’s hard to categorize. But ultimately, the epicenter of who’s creating this stuff still ends up being the comic book companies, the Hollywood movies or whatever. All of that is very much white male-centered. That’s what it is. I don’t look at it as a bad thing. Most of Hollywood is like that. I don’t trip on it.
What makes Red Tails so remarkable is that it’s an all-black movie. That’s unique in this world. Boondocks the same thing. It’s our attempt at anime, but it’s very, very black. [Laughs] I think it’s a world that cultivates people’s imagination, allows people to be themselves even if it falls outside of what can be sometimes a very narrow definition of what is hip and cool. It’s a world that accepts people more for who they are, and whoever you are, at this point, you can find your thing.
MF: In an interview you did with HardKnocksTV in the summer of ’08, you were asked about the upcoming election and why you pulled away from critiquing the Bush administration. You said, “We’re no longer at a point where people don’t know what the problem is.” In the last year, looking at the Wisconsin labor protests, Occupy Wall Street, the changing cultural discussion about class warfare with corporate control, how would Huey Freeman would respond to these changes?
AM: Well the only way for you to know would be through The Boondocks. I decided a long time ago to stop engaging in the conversation. If I had anything worthwhile to say, I should say it in the work. I stopped running around and arguing on Bill Maher. I lost an appetite for it. I feel like my personal passions are elsewhere. What happens to this crazy world is going to happen.
But I think there’s as much impact doing movies like Red Tails that are not controversial in any real sense, but can still have a real effect on the audience and affect people’s perceptions of themselves. I try to imagine what it would be like if I was six going to see this movie, and I tried to keep that in mind as I was working on it. That’s the really cool thing that “Boondocks” can’t inspire. The Boondocks can be a rough education of satire, politics and social issues; it’s hardcore and brutal. This is a sweet, charming movie. That also has it’s place in society.
MF: Will “Boondocks” ever return to TV in some kind of format?
AM: I’m just going to have to pass on that question. [Laughs]
MF: Looking back on the Adult Swim show, what lessons did you learn for the next time you mount a TV production?
AM: Too many to name. I had not worked a day in television when I showed up to work and had my own show and my own staff. I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I still probably couldn’t function on a real production. [Laughs] I think I’m a better writer now than when I started. I certainly know more about producing and working with actors. You take every single bit of it into the next project.
MF: Have you ever thought about mounting — directing and designing — an animated feature? Making an American anime for American audiences?
AM: All I can say, um [Laughs] All I can say is, I can’t say anything.
MF: Did I stumble on something?
AM: What did you say: “interview’s over”? Interview’s over!