director Ralph Bakshi
Considered by many, including Ralph Bakshi himself, to be Bakshi’s best film, or masterpiece, the 1975 film Coonskin is one that I really should have finally gotten around to seeing sooner. I’ve written about Bakshi’s films Wizards (1977) and The Lord of the Rings (1978), but it wasn’t until I saw Heavy Traffic (1973), the other of his oft-cited “best films” that I really started to get it. But even that film doesn’t come close to the raw Id of his politically-charged fairy tale of Coonskin.
To be honest, I don’t know that as a teen or a twenty-something, or even in my thirties that I would necessarily have appreciated Coonskin as I do today. The film has sparked controversy since its completion, since its very first public screening, and though the controversy in question has to do with its portrayal of African Americans and stereotypes, whether it is inherently racist, ultimately seems a massive misreading of the film and its content.
It’s easy enough to see why. The images that Bakshi summons filter through more classical stereotypes in cartoons, ricochet off the then popular Blaxploitation genre, and turn some traditional tropes around so many times, maybe it’s hard to see how righteous the film’s tone essentially is. The moral this might be that if you play with stereotypes, you run the risk is that all people see are stereotypes and not how they are being used or subverted, inverted, re-appropriated, or otherwise skewed out of shape.
The film is radical riff on Disney’s Song of the South (1946), taking the Uncle Remus characters of Brer Rabbit, Brer Bear, and Brer Fox into the modern city, as sly hustlers in a world overrun by mafiosi, pimps, drug addicts, and bums. And the animation portion, the bulk of the film, is the centerpiece, of a story about a jail break, shot in live-action and starring Scatman Carruthers, Barry White(!), Philip Michael Thomas, and Charles Gordone, all of whom also provide voicework in the animated segments.
Bakshi’s cut-up style, employing cell animation over live-action settings, non-linear aspects of storytelling, very naturalistic, free riffing voice acting, radically surreal breaks and loose-limbed cartooning meets this acid trip of a treatise on the state of the world for African Americans in 1975. The extremity of the caricatures, yet their connection to older designs and traditions, while also evoking George Herriman and Philip Guston. In a sex and drugs and booze and blood-soaked world of oppression from the state and the criminal world. Bakshi’s style makes intrinsic sense here, in this free jazz flare of genius.
I’m constantly being reminded of how radical film-making was in the 1970’s and Coonskin is another fantastic example and artifact of that. Really a tremendous film.