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Break A Layer

Written by Orest Ormenaj

March 28, 2024

Expectations are set upon everybody from birth. They act as the unwritten creed of the world around us, often as a social barometer with equal causation for irritability when pressure mounts. For those most affected in deficient environments, underprivileged youth are the most susceptible to internalizing the expectation of escaping their situation through individual, exploitative avenues. These options regurgitate as either athletic success in a volatile industry or peddling substances back to communities. Best exemplified by the track, “Things Done Changed” by Biggie Smalls from his debut album, Ready to Die, where he says, “either you’re slingin’ crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.” However, the belief that these two ways of life are the only “ticket out of the hood” is an outdated and viciously false notion. In the murky waters of societal hierarchy, alternative talent can be undermined and forgotten as easily as a breeze passes by. As a result, it becomes imperative to cast a wider scope of what makes up a person’s abilities and cultivate a more unique path to subvert societal assumptions. There is more than one path to fulfillment for forthcoming youth. Suppressing capacity does nothing but stifle future opportunities. The reality we all entertain has the potential to be even brighter for everybody within it if different talents are encouraged as superpowers rather than kryptonite.

The Boondocks, created by Aaron McGruder, is a TV show that aims to take the undercurrent of stereotypes pushed against people of color and examine the dichotomy of its characters relations with one another, their motives, and how they interact with the satirical caricatures of figures transposed from our reality. Its first season delves into the lives of the Freeman family, composed of Robert (Grandpa) and brothers Huey and Riley. Riley is introduced as a freewheeling troublemaker with an affinity for 2000s’ hip-hop until the twelfth episode of the first season, when “Riley Wuz Here” implements a new figure and layer to his persona. It interjects a Bob Ross-esque character who parodies the figure and serves as a guiding mentor through the narrative’s duration. The background is that Riley has been getting in trouble for his graffiti across public property and Grandpa Freeman is completely fed up with his delinquency. As a result, he enrolls Riley with pseudo-Bob for the sake of downsizing his artwork to more palatable sheets of paper and hopefully teaching him how to express himself properly. Begrudgingly, Riley shows up for his first lesson and is bemused at his teacher’s docile nature.  Riley quickly scribbles something to give to Bob, who takes a glance and throws it away after. Riley is taken aback by his teacher’s insistence on producing artwork with a focus on self-expression and inner peace. After some time, Riley continues to produce murals of graffiti on houses. One is ODB (Ol’ Dirty Bastard of the Wu-Tang Clan). However, this time his art presented a more personal and intimate view. Its allure garnered the acclaim of his white neighbors. The longer they gawked at the details of his art, the more astonished they became. They questioned who was able to create something so beautiful, something so complex. No one believed him when he attempted to take credit, and thus his greatest project began to form.

Retrieving several old photographs from his home, he enlists his teacher as an apprentice this time and pushes through the night to finish his newest mural. As the first signs of daylight creep up, Riley is dissatisfied, but his teacher assures him that the work he has put in is nothing short of remarkable. He hastily leaves the scene while Grandpa Freeman wakes up to an alarming call regarding his property. The remaining Freemans and the entire neighborhood simultaneously see a new mural on the front-facing side of the residency. As it occurs, a non-diegetic needle drop occurs, and “Today,” interpolated by Tom Scott, begins to play over the climax. Its most profound line ties back to the character of Riley Freeman and the soul of The Boondocks perfectly. Tom sings, “To be any more than all I am would be a lie.” Riley is the summation of his self-assertive nature, passion for black culture, and creative autonomy. As all the people gather around in awe, they see the full extent of Riley's work. Earlier in the episode, his mentor stated, “You should take people by surprise and do something they wouldn’t expect you to do”. Riley, it turns out, spray-painted a mural of his deceased parents on their wedding day, capturing them in all their glory as a memorial for his surviving family to enjoy. Grandpa Freeman lingers over the image of his son's beaming smile as Huey looks on, stupefied at the contents of the portrait.

The one-note troublemaker with a loud mouth, the annoying younger sibling, and the rebel-like qualities that Riley has are all completely flipped on their head. The metaphorical dam of expectation has broken. Previously, Riley was shamed by others for his defacement of communal properties. His own family at times disputed the sincerity behind his artwork. Yet despite any attempt to constrain him, with the aid of his Grandfather’s insistence and a few lessons, the course of public perception changed.

Through the merits of his talent and perseverance, Riley Freeman worked out a way to dispute and disrupt on his own terms. No modification was mandatory to make his work more palatable to other audiences. Taking elements of the hip-hop subculture that defined his taste in music alongside his enjoyment of visual art, Riley turned his art into a beautiful unspoken message, imparted to his family. In some manner, he must have understood the loss his Grandfather felt. At an unstated level, he rose to match with his inner sentiment. Hand in hand, with plenty of quips at the end to balance out the heartfelt moment, The Boondocks achieved a careful balancing act between humor and heart. This level of poignancy caught my eye and my heart instantly. Without a shadow of a doubt, Riley’s talent is on full display for all to see. Long after he escapes the trappings of youth, people will remember his signature. Unabashedly himself in the face of conformity and misunderstanding, Riley Freeman is animated proof that there is more to people than the expectations placed upon them. All it takes sometimes is a happy accident. Perhaps then, they will reminisce over him too, long after today has passed.

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