A subversive and satirical re-imagining of Disney’s Song Of The South transplanted to Harlem, Ralph Bakshi’s incendiary masterpiece Coonskin exploits and eviscerates grotesque American racial stereotypes with a politically incorrect, profane and vicious sense of humor. The film’s hyper energy is emphasized by Chico Hamilton’s percussive score and the mix of animation and live action set the tone for films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Despite its innovative visuals, there’s nothing slick about Coonskin. The movie has the perfect low-budget skeeziness of a Dolemite flick. And casting Barry White as Brother Bear/Samson and Scatman Crothers as Papa Bone adds layers of pop cultural resonance that continue to reverberate even today. (Did Rick Ross cop his fashion sense from Samson?)
Released in 1975 to a firestorm of controversy, it took Coonskin several years before the film found an audience that could appreciate it as an edgy aesthetic experiment and a powerful social statement. Wu Tang Clan had plans to re-make it and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, released 25 years after Coonskin, echoes Bakshi’s brutal take on the pervasive, ages-old racism that permeates American popular culture. Al Sharpton and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) went apeshit and picketed Coonskin before anyone in the organization had even seen the film. (Sharpton quipped “I don’t need to see shit to smell shit.”) Bakshi had hired a number of black animators to work on the film and the NAACP felt it was an important work but still Sharpton couldn’t resist the opportunity for some press. New York City theaters were smoke-bombed during screenings of Coonskin. Nationwide theaters panicked and cancelled bookings.The film’s distributor Paramount Pictures eventually freaked and pulled it from circulation. The positive reception from critics didn’t make up for the fact that most audiences, both black and white, just didn’t get it.
Quentin Tarantino has championed Coonskin over the years and provided some critical insight into Bakshi’s methods. Tarantino describes the film as…
... hands down the most incendiary piece of work in the entire (blaxploitation) genre. Using negro folklore and slave tales of nonviolent resistance, along with the White American/European media’s racist caricatures of the past (i.e., Disney’s Black Crows, Warner Brothers’ Coal Black, every James River pickaninny that smilingly stared back from grocery shelves, the spaghetti benders of Lady and the Tramp, and the Jews of the Nazi Party-produced The Eternal Jew), Bakshi, with zero timidity, challenged his audiences’ sensibilities in ways that made all the other blaxploitation titles seem like the wish-fulfillment fantasies they were.
In fact, the only voice of the time that had a symbiotic relationship to Bakshi’s work could be found in Richard Pryor’s monologues. To discover that the two gentlemen were friends, and Pryor was a huge fan of Coonskin, comes as no surprise. An America that considers Blazing Saddles and All In The Family stinging racial satire is an America not ready for Coonskin.
Sometimes art needs to go over-the-top in order to roil up the dark side of our collective consciousness…to shove into the light the shit we’re too afraid to talk about and too ashamed to acknowledge. Sometimes the only way to make that reality check bearable is to find the ridiculous, the absurd and the insanity within the demons trapped in the briar patch of our shared mythologies. Darius James, author of That’s Blaxploitation: Roots of the Baadasssss ‘Tude (Rated X by an All’Whyte Jury) wrote that Coonskin
…reads like an Uncle Remus folktale rewritten by Chester Himes with all the Yoruba-based surrealism of Nigerian-author Amos Tutuola.
Bakshi takes the call to action “by any means necessary” and includes pop culture in the equation. Like the “head” comics of the 60s and early 70s, there’s more within the frame than just laffs, there are revolutions. In Coonskin, Bakshi’s masterpiece, his animated nightmares are in the tradition of humor that hurts.