Werner Herzog Plays Himself in Cartoon That Satirizes Obama’s 2008 Election & Race in America

The Unit­ed States has two impor­tant cul­tur­al means of self-examination—the work of for­eign observers and of domes­tic satirists. In the for­mer cat­e­go­ry, we have the long­stand­ing exam­ple of polit­i­cal the­o­rist Alex­is de Toc­queville and the much bleak­er, con­tem­po­rary vision of Wern­er Her­zog. As for the lat­ter, we have ven­er­a­ble lit­er­ary heroes like Mark Twain and more pop­ulist, con­tem­po­rary voic­es like Chris Rock, Stephen Col­bert, and car­toon­ist Aaron McGrud­er, cre­ator of the com­ic strip-turned-ani­mat­ed series The Boon­docks. In 2010, the Sea­son 3 debut episode of the bit­ing Adult Swim show brought these two tra­di­tions togeth­er, as McGrud­er took on the elec­tion of America’s first black pres­i­dent by imag­in­ing a Ger­man documentarian—Herzog—who exam­ines the nation’s response through inter­views with the show’s char­ac­ters.

The clip above will give you an idea of the gen­er­al tone. Her­zog plays an exag­ger­at­ed ver­sion of him­self, com­plete with stereo­typ­i­cal­ly Ger­man expres­sions of exis­ten­tial despair. The Free­man fam­i­ly, the show’s cen­ter, rep­re­sents an also-exag­ger­at­ed range of respons­es from black Amer­i­cans to Obama’s elec­tion. Huey, the young black rad­i­cal (“retired”), express­es a deep, cyn­i­cal skep­ti­cism. His broth­er Riley has a total dis­re­gard for the social and polit­i­cal import of the elec­tion, con­fi­dent instead that a black pres­i­dent will give him a license to do what he wants. And the broth­ers’ grand­fa­ther Robert, a Civ­il Rights vet­er­an, dis­plays an unqual­i­fied opti­mism and nos­tal­gic pride for his activist days. The full episode also sat­i­rizes a cer­tain ill-informed rap­per with a char­ac­ter called Thug­nif­i­cent and cer­tain super­fi­cial white pro­gres­sives (“Oba­ma Guy” and “Oba­ma Girl”). And, of course, bel­liger­ent reac­tionary Uncle Ruckus gets his say.

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By the time of its air­ing, the episode was already near­ly two years late in its com­ment on the events, mak­ing it feel, wrote the A.V. Club’s Todd Van­Der­W­erff, “like an instant peri­od piece.” Per­haps now it seems down­right pale­olith­ic in the timescale of polit­i­cal com­men­tary. Mak­ing this kind of cul­tur­al cri­tique seem rel­e­vant out­side of the imme­di­ate moment is a chal­lenge writ­ers on The Dai­ly Show con­front, well, dai­ly. But here, the con­tent holds up, not only because Her­zog has a way of mak­ing every­thing time­less, but also because “the episode takes us back to… the way [Barack Oba­ma] man­aged to make almost every sin­gle one of his sup­port­ers believe that he was going to do what THEY most want­ed him to do and not what he had actu­al­ly promised to do.” In many ways, the coun­try is still recov­er­ing from a bru­tal hang­over after this post-2008 elec­tion high.

Whether the pres­i­dent is ful­ly to blame for encour­ag­ing false hopes—and fears—is high­ly debat­able. In any case, the char­ac­ters’ out­sized expec­ta­tions or expres­sions of apa­thy or vir­u­lent out­rage mir­ror many of the respons­es of both lib­er­als and con­ser­v­a­tives. But it seems that both the left and right shared at least one hope: that the elec­tion of the country’s first black pres­i­dent would put an end to its old­est, deep­est, most per­sis­tent ill. “At the end of the episode,” writes Van­Der­W­erff, “most of the char­ac­ters seem dis­ap­point­ed that Oba­ma didn’t com­plete­ly rewrite the space-time con­tin­u­um, that Amer­i­ca still strug­gles with race.” An under­state­ment per­haps even in 2010, the phrase “still strug­gles with race” is even more so today, for rea­sons both obvi­ous and less so.

That the Unit­ed States—despite the con­tin­ued efforts of a great many activists and some few legislators—is still riv­en with deep racial divides, and that these rep­re­sent the per­sis­tence of a his­tor­i­cal lega­cy, should not be mat­ters in much dis­pute. A mul­ti­tude of aca­d­e­m­ic analy­ses on “stag­ger­ing dis­par­i­ties” in polic­ing prac­tices, imbal­ances in the jus­tice sys­tem, and pro­found wealth inequal­i­ty and dis­crim­i­na­tion in hous­ing and employ­ment bear out the claim. How we talk about these issues, who is autho­rized to do so, and what can be done about it, on the oth­er hand, are mat­ters of con­sid­er­able, seem­ing­ly unend­ing debate. It has always seemed par­tic­u­lar­ly iron­ic that many comedians—from Richard Pry­or to Chris Rock and Louis CK—have achieved much of their main­stream suc­cess by telling hard truths about the state of race in Amer­i­ca, truths few peo­ple seem to want to hear. When those mes­sages come from non-enter­tain­ers, for exam­ple, the back­lash can be swift and vicious.

But this is noth­ing new. From the can­dor of Shakespeare’s jesters to Swift’s poi­son pen to, yes, The Boon­docks, humor and satire have served as vehi­cles for what we would oth­er­wise sup­press or repress. (No need to be a Freudi­an to acknowl­edge the point). In this episode, the satir­i­cal tar­get isn’t only Obama’s sup­port­ers and detrac­tors at home—though they get their due. Herzog’s edi­to­r­i­al intru­sions also sat­i­rize some woe­ful­ly naïve, ahis­tor­i­cal expec­ta­tions of a glob­al, or at least Euro­pean, com­mu­ni­ty. As the Her­zog char­ac­ter puts it in his sec­ond ques­tion to Huey, “now that it looks like Oba­ma is going to win, as a black African Amer­i­can Negro, are you mere­ly excit­ed, or are you extreme­ly excit­ed that every­thing is going to change for­ev­er.” Van­Der­W­erff reads Huey’s apa­thet­ic response to such grandios­i­ty as an expres­sion of McGruder’s view that ide­al­ism is “both an unsus­tain­able tragedy and the only ratio­nal response to a world that’s hope­less­ly screwed.” But in the face of unbri­dled ide­al­ism, Huey’s hard-bit­ten real­ism is ton­ic: “Hope,” he says, “is irra­tional.” So also, per­haps, is despair.

Watch the full episode here and read a com­plete sum­ma­ry here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Wern­er Herzog’s Eye-Open­ing New Film Reveals the Dan­gers of Tex­ting While Dri­ving

Steven Spielberg’s Oba­ma, Star­ring Daniel Day Lewis as the Pres­i­dent

David Rem­nick on Oba­ma

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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