“The Boondocks,” “Atlanta,” “black-ish,” “Dear White People,” “Sorry to Bother You” — there are a few shows and movies that have dared to use comedy to address the grim state of Black people in America. But lately, I’ve been thinking about a movie I hadn’t seen in more than 20 years: “Bébé’s Kids.” This animated Black comedy explicitly spoke about police brutality and our broken judicial system years before the first utterance of “Black Lives Matter.”
“Bébé’s Kids,” directed by Bruce W. Smith (who would later become known as the creator of the Black cartoon series “The Proud Family”), was released in 1992, just months after the Los Angeles riots over the not-guilty verdicts in the police beating of Rodney King. Based on a stand-up bit by the comedian Robin Harris, “Bébé’s Kids” depicts an animated version of Robin (voiced by Faizon Love) trying to impress a woman by taking her and her son on a date to a theme park. But when they meet, he quickly finds himself saddled with three more children, an ornery, misbehaved lot belonging to the woman’s friend, Bébé.
At first glance, the movie appears to be a playful “Rugrats”-style comedy, with youngsters engaging in high jinks while our protagonist runs after them in exasperation. I watched it repeatedly as a kid, amused by the troop’s misbehavior, not understanding at the time that among the PG-13 laughs are hints of the disturbing reality of Blackness in America. Rewatching it today, I no longer find in it the same innocent delight; there’s just the horrific realization that it is presenting issues that are still relevant today.
Before the crew even arrive at the amusement park, the generically named Funworld, they’re accosted by a policeman as their car comes to an abrupt stop. “Carrying any illegal substances?” the white officer asks Robin, frisking him before leering at his date, Jamika, who snaps, “Don’t even try it.” The interaction doesn’t do much to serve the plot, and as a child, I found it innocuous, forgettable. But it does serve a function in the film: It sets up the recurring theme of Black characters being targeted by law enforcement. Even Jamika’s dismissal serves as a reminder that to be a Black woman is to know your body is a target.
But it’s Bébé’s oldest son, the grade-school-age Kahlil (voiced by Marques Houston), who faces the most unnerving antagonism throughout the movie. Though drawn years before the shooting of Trayvon Martin, Kahlil could have been created with him in mind — or any young, innocent Black boy, for that matter. He wears baggy pants over sneakers with untied laces, the tongues popped. On his head is a baseball cap with a skull, and over that the hood of a zip-up. His body language is defensive: arms crossed or hands dug into pockets.
When the group enters the park, Kahlil is immediately harassed by park officials dressed in suits and sunglasses like the Men in Black. “Well, look what we have here. Are you starting trouble?” one asks. “He’s a 415 in progress,” another pronounces. They admonish him for his “hostile attitude” and inspect his hat, deciding that “it looks like some sort of gang insignia.” It’s clear, though, that Kahlil’s antagonists are not just anonymous men in suits but the larger system they represent.
One tells him, “You just remember: we’ll be watching you,” as cameras trained on Kahlil pop up all around him. To think: “Bébé’s Kids” stylized the amusement park as the panopticon. Kahlil is declared a miscreant and surveyed, though he’s only a child. We see this often: young boys sized up to the stature of men so they can be held fully accountable for the racist imaginations of those around them. (As the poet Claudia Rankine wrote, “because white men can’t/police their imagination/black men are dying.”)
The film goes even farther in its depiction of racial injustice when Kahlil is kidnapped by a giant Terminator-esque robot, who aims to electrocute him for an earlier infraction. An animatronic Abraham Lincoln stops the death sentence, reminding him that “every man has a right to a fair trial.”
And so the movie delivers its most bizarre scene: a Black boy put on trial with Lincoln as his defense attorney and an animatronic Richard Nixon prosecuting. The whole time Kahlil wears a helmet that will electrocute him if he’s found guilty.
And yet, just as the real Lincoln failed to end slavery despite the Emancipation Proclamation, the movie’s Honest Abe is only one man up against a system that isn’t easily broken by legislation and good intentions. At the end of Lincoln’s defense speech, the crowd calls for Kahlil’s life — until Jamika’s son, Leon, performs a rap song in a final plea for Kahlil’s release.
“Kahlil is a rebel without a pause/He’s a victim of your unjust laws,” Leon raps, pointing to the larger hypocrisy of a society that sets up its Black citizens for failure and then punishes them for being victims of circumstance. “Give Kahlil the tools he needs,” Leon demands, before breaking into a chorus of “Freedom,” with the people in the crowd suddenly pumping their fists.
Kahlil is set free, and Bébé’s kids wreak some more havoc before jumping in the car with Robin, who is all too happy to dump them back home. Though he wilts when he gets there: an empty apartment in an old building in the ghetto.
The film’s comedy rests on the disaster that’s wrought by three poor Black kids with an unnamed father and absent mother and how they are demonized, even criminalized, by those around them. The joke is their disciplinary issues and rebellion, which nearly earns one of them the death sentence.
As a child, I laughed. I was too young to know about King and how my Blackness would read in America. But the movie’s implications aren’t funny, and today the laughs seem especially cruel, shadowed as they are by the killings of Black boys and men who look like the real-life versions of Kahlil.
Though the movie ends happily for Robin, Jamika, Leon and Bébé’s brood, I can’t help but wonder what will happen after the credits roll — whether the kids will suddenly cease to be poor and harassed by figures of authority, or whether their fates will be bleaker. At one point, Bébé’s youngest — a gravel-voiced baby with a chronically stinky diaper — punchily declares, “We don’t die, we multiply.” If only, for the real-life Bébé’s kids — everyone born Black in America — that were truly the case.