At the end of The Criterion Channel’s synopsis for Coonskin (1974)—director Ralph Bakshi’s blisteringly transgressive animated satire of American race relations—you find the following line:
“Please be advised: this film contains offensive racist language and racial stereotypes.”
The film is currently streaming on the platform as part of their “Beyond Blaxploitation” collection. Although all 20 movies in said collection contain their fair share of racially charged content that would be considered highly problematic, if not outright offensive, by today’s standards, Coonskin is only one of two titles to boast this content warning (the other being Gordon Parks Jr.’s Thomasine and Bushrod).
While the warning is understandable—the movie is called Coonskin, after all—it is also the latest in a long history of reductionism that’s surrounded it since before it was even released. Coonskin is certainly not a racist work. But nor is it a simple satirical takedown of anti-racism. Rather, it is a messy, troubling, deeply flawed movie that accurately reflects the madhouse that is the history of race in America.
At the time the most ambitious film from Bakshi—once the head of Paramount Pictures animation division, he would go on to become arguably the most important pioneer in American alternative animation following the release of his hit debut feature, Fritz the Cat, in 1972—Coonskin melds live action with the director’s signature chiaroscuro cartoon stylings to create a work of pure provocation the likes of which has rarely been seen since.
A severed tongue in bullet-ridden cheek update of Disney’s notorious 1946 feature Song of the South, the film’s narrative is framed by the story of an impending jailbreak. Two convicts, young Randy (future Miami Vice star Philip Michael Hall) and old Pappy (the legendary Scatman Crothers) hide outside the prison gate while waiting to be picked up by two accomplises (playwright Charles Gordone and R&B icon Barry White, who also provided music for the soundtrack). To kill time, Pappy tells the tale of three black brothers from the south, each of whom resemble the young trio he’s taken up with—Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear and Preacher Fox—who flee to Harlem after killing a racist white sheriff.
Although they’ve been told that Harlem is “home to every black man,” what they find is a vicious, violent gutter lorded over by pimps, charlatans, crooked cops, and Italian mafiaso. Under the leadership of Brother Rabbit, they decide to take down the entire system by using their crafty wiles (as well as lots and lots of guns and knives).
Like Song of the South, Coonskin’s makes use of the (supposed) black American folk tales gathered together in the popular 19th century Uncle Remus collections (the work of white folklorist Joel Chandler Harris, most notably the Brer Rabbit briar patch and tar baby stories), while also satirizing the then-hot trend of urban crime and action movies that would later be dubbed Blaxploitation. (The film also bears the influence of Harlem-set crime fiction from black writers like Iceberg Slim—who gets a namedrop—and Chester Himes.) The film’s third act also includes a very vicious lampooning of The Godfather films, which Bakshi saw as hypocritically romanticizing of white criminality.
The controversy that would erupt around Coonskin wasn’t set off by the film’s story, but the copious amounts of racial invective in the dialog and, most importantly, the animation, which makes use of the grotesque archetypes and caricatures of black people found throughout racist American art (minstrels, mammys, sambos, law jockeys, pickaninnies and the like). Bakshi’s objective in deploying these symbols is clear: by taking them out of their original context and placing them in a modern story about revolution and retribution, he intends not so much to strip them of their offensive power, but to turn that power against the oppressors (most of whom are depicted as even more repulsive stereotypes).
In this, Bakshi is mostly but not entirely successful. The effect the film has on the viewer is one of mental and spiritual exhaustion, which is fitting given its subject matter and larger aesthetic—which, if you’ll excuse the clichés, truly does resemble a bad acid trip and/or fever dream—but as a work of agitprop, it’s doesn’t exactly send its audience home in a revolutionary fervor. The animation itself is, like all of Bakshi’s work, grotesquely beautiful and legitimately hallucinatory, but the dual projection effects and the sound design are noticeably wonky (another staple of Bakshi’s work, which never fails to have a distancing effect.) The plot, meanwhile, is so scattered as to be incomprehensible at times. Bakshi is a singular and endlessly fascinating artist, but storytelling has never been one of his strong suits.
He’s also one cinema’s most naked fetishists, with that fetishism extending beyond the copious amounts of large breasted women—both real and animated—bouncing all over the screen. As evidenced by the use of them in his other films, Bakshi’s interest in ethnic and racial caricature/stereotypes is not merely political; he clearly has a deeply personal attraction to them. Personally, I find this one of the most fascinating aspects of his work, but the idea that racism has aesthetic dimensions worth exploring (by a white artist, no less) is not something that will cut ice with most audiences–especially not politically-minded ones.
(Also, while it would be unfair to compare Bakshi’s to the majority of shock/gross-out animation that followed in his wake, he can fall prey to a similar juvenilia. Whereas the racism on display in Coonskin is very clearly making a political statement, the plethora of homophobia reads as straight-up homophobia.)
Coonskin is the type of movie that cultural grandstanders claim you couldn’t make today, but the fact is, they were barely able to make it in 1977. The film came to fruition after Bakshi met Godfather producer Al Ruddy during a screening of that film. Ruddy would go on to oversee the production—an odd turn of events considering how brutally it satirizes The Godfather—at Paramount, only for the studio to cut himself and Bakshi loose when the inevitable controversy erupted.
Despite a (reserved) recognition from the NAACP that the movie was indeed a satire, it was still attacked by the Congress for Racial Justice (CORE), who charged it as being an irredeemable work of anti-black racism. Pickets at a preview screening at the Museum of Modern Art, as well as Paramount Studios’ headquarters, gave the studio’s parent company, Gulf and Western, cold feet about releasing it. A deal was negotiated that freed Bakshi and Ruddy from their contracts, allowing for the film to be sold to Bryanston Distributing Company. This, however, did not save the film. Continued demonstrations from CORE (including throwing smoke bombs in at least one theater’s lobby during a screening), a misguided promotional campaign that attempted to sell the film as a run of the mill blaxploitation flick, and the bankruptcy of Bryanston only a few weeks into release ensured the film bombed out hard.
(It’s interesting how this all compares to Ruddy’s experience making The Godfather, which, despite similar protests and threats from the Italian-American Civil Rights League, was ultimately backed by Paramount, a story that is currently playing out Showtime’s patently ridiculous but extremely entertaining drama series The Offer. Could we possibly see a second season of the show, possibly titled The Offer: Coonskin? We can only dream.)
In the decades since its disastrous release, Coonskin has become a cult classic, but one that’s remained more infamous than seen. An attempted re-release ultimately failed to find a new audience; a couple of subsequent VHS releases preceded a bare-bones DVD in 2012–the first time it was put out under its original title since that first theatrical run (the constant renaming certainly didn’t do its legacy any favors; for the longest time, I knew it as Street Fight, the title it bore on the VHS copy I watched when I was waaaaay too young).
Coonskin always been easy enough to find online, although its spot on the Criterion Channel marks the first instance of it being available to stream legitimately. Hopefully, this earns it a new audience who are willing to judge the film on its actual merits, rather than the small-minded, bad faith accusations it detractors tarred it with in the lead up to its initial release. If nothing else, Criterion has done it proper justice with the label ‘Beyond Blaxploitation.’ Like a handful of other films from the same decade erroneously tagged with that genre deisgnation—namely Christopher St. John’s Top of the Heap (1972) and Ivan Dixon’s The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973)—its artistic ambition and radical politics make it a truly transcendent work of provocation.
“Coonskin” is now streaming on the Criterion Channel.