When The Boondocks was a comic strip, it got most of its mileage from using its main characters almost purely as archetypes—Huey was a radical freedom fighter, Riley caught in the wannabe gangsta lifestyle and beholden to certain parts of the system, and Robert the old, grumpy man uninterested in anything besides himself and his power over his grandchildren (let’s not get into Tom). In the strip, it made sense that these characters were simply mouthpieces for different points of view, allowing them to clash in broad strokes over the course of a few panels. But in television, nuance is king—strong, specific characterizations are bigger and better sources of sitcom laughs than broad vagueness. For the most part, the Freemans have been fleshed out sufficiently to solve this adaptation issue, but “Freedom Ride Or Die” is all about returning to that sort of political storytelling in a mockumentary setting reminiscent of Eyes On The Prize, using Robert as a foil to (at best) two-dimensional figureheads, to more than a bit of success.
“Freedom Ride Or Die” tells the sort of story the Boondocks strip might have wanted to tell, but relies strongly on the previously established strong(ish) craven, self-aggrandizing characterization of Robert to do something pretty bold: mock the Civil Rights Movement. Robert has always been fond of talking up his own experience during the 1950s and ’60s, but it makes a certain amount of sense that he gets stuck on a Freedom Ride bus purely by accident and spends the rest of the time trying to get off and run. This does somewhat contradict the story we get of his principled stand with Rosa Parks from “Return Of The King,” but it’s plausible enough that Robert both wanted to engage in more fame-seeking and that his attitude might have changed after this experience (it doesn’t hurt that “Return Of The King” didn’t really happen, more so than any episode of this show). So we find Robert used to puncture the idea of non-violent protest and the myth it created, a central thesis corroborated by a talking head in the greatest line of the episode: “The strategy of non-violent, direct action, when you think about it, is completely insane.” The notion that, yeah, it’s insane to want people to beat the snot out of you without fighting back is a classic Boondocks premise, poking holes in lofty rhetoric and approaches to real problems (namely, getting beat up), and Robert becomes its mouthpiece.
The effects of the Civil Rights protests also gets an unusual outlet in the opinions of Ruckus, who of course is the only other regular character to show up because of course he does (the writers must love giving him dialogue). Though Ruckus also introduces the worst part of the episode, a pretty pointless last-minute Speed parody, he mostly serves to comically lay out the slippery slope of desegregation and the eventual success of the Freedom Riders (the basic historical narrative of the time) alongside the cartoonish racists, but from the other side—both the white local law enforcement and the Freedom Riders are convinced of the deep importance of the ride and what it represents, with Robert positioned in the middle as a practical, cynical, selfish coward confused about why anyone would want to be shot at. If pressed, Robert might admit that maybe someone has to take that stand (certainly, the Riders get Kennedy’s attention), but it won’t be him. The closest Robert will get to big speeches and world-shaking action is the dump he takes in the white bathroom in the bus depot.
Thankfully, Robert also gets a solid foil for that rhetoric in Dennis Haybert, who turns in great work as Sturdy Harris, the massive, football playing, religious leader of the Freedom Riders. Robert accuses Sturdy of wanting to be a martyr for the cause, a charge that rings at least somewhat true (and sounds directed at several other people who like to consider themselves political leaders), though Sturdy doesn’t get a deep enough characterization to really indicate whether it’s true or not. The only other Freedom Rider with a character, Diane, exists mostly as an object of Robert’s creepiness (he keeps meaning to read Invisible Man!) and to decide she should fight to protect him, a choice that might be the closest thing this episode has to a moral. I’m not sure if it would have worked in this setting (and I don’t really want to tell the writers how to do their jobs), but it might have been interesting to see Diane function as a converted, more militant presence similar to Huey in the strip to allow a fuller range of perspectives and comedic conflicts—at the least, thinking about the possibility says a lot about what “Freedom Ride Or Die” does well.
Among those successes: using the off-format structure of the episode to comedic advantage. Perhaps because it’s satirizing the Civil Rights Movement, “Freedom Ride Or Die” doesn’t have many outright laughs, but as the recent glut of mockumentary-style sitcoms has demonstrated, the documentary format lends itself to a lot of humor. Rodney Barnes’ script for “Freedom Ride Or Die” gets a lot of mileage from the talking head-flashback contrast in moments like the predictable yet hilarious cut to Robert saying, “I was scared.” It’s good that these jokes find their way in to the episode, because otherwise it’d be awfully dour and kind of bizarre (particularly once the fight scenes and inexpicable Speed parody get started).
However, using the structure of a television episode also opens “Freedom Ride Or Die” to problems of pacing and story structure. On one, very basic level, the continued plot machination to keep Robert on the bus is funny, but also a little far-fetched (it’s unclear to me why, exactly, Robert couldn’t just get off the bus before Sturdy decides to kidnap him)—this sort of lessens the personal stakes for Robert, especially since we know he’s just sort of being swept along with history, Forrest Gump style. The second half of the episode also drags quite a bit, driven largely by the big, drawn-out conflicts at the bus depots and the Speed parody. Much as the idea of a Boondocks fight scene in which one of the combatants is attempting to engage in non-violent protest sounds funny, it also is just that: something that sounds funny on paper, and isn’t given enough room in execution to really go to the ridiculous places it’d need to in order to be completely successful.
And one of the pitfalls of being an episode of a long-running series is the too-tempting well of old jokes. “Freedom Ride Or Die” continues the fourth season’s trend of reusing a few old jokes (like the long list of real and fake racial slurs that originated in “The S Word”), which distracts from the sort of comic momentum that the best episodes of sitcoms, and The Boondocks in particular, thrive on, further deflating the last 10 minutes. But these rehashes are, in contrast to, say, the season premiere, used in sufficiently original combinations to overcome any strong feeling of repetition. The core concept for the episode might not be enough to sustain 20 minutes, but it’s certainly more than meaty enough for a comic strip, and strong enough that if you squint, you can see an all-time classic. On the whole, “Freedom Ride Or Die” is a solid, if not utterly spectacular, installment of the show, with some cool stuff to say—and really that’s about all I can ask for.
- The local Mississippi police look a lot like Axe Cop.
- Let’s hear it for Robert’s descriptions of his own poop.
- Next week: Kardashians!
- Here is The Roots’ version of “Ain’t Nobody Gonna Turn Me Around.”