Ralph Bakshi Retrospective 3: Coonskin

by tigermanifesto

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In 1975, Ralph Bakshi completed his trilogy of hammer-blunt urban satires. Coonskin not only cares the torch forward from Fritz and Heavy Traffic, it stokes it and hurls it through the nearest window. Bakshi sold the film to his producers as a corrosive remake of Song of the South, uprooting the Uncle Remus tall tales from the Cotton Belt and resetting them in Harlem. Like the previous two films, Coonskin is a mixed-media work, using another live-action framing story and making liberal use of stock footage, photographic backgrounds, and multiple animation styles.

Framing narratives are often a waste of time, but here, as in Heavy Traffic, the films are wise to give the audience some kind of entry point. In this case, our framing narrative is a prison break being stage by two black inmates. They huddle underneath a guard tower and the older of the two (Scatman Crothers) tells the stories of Rabbit, Bear, and Preacher Fox to the younger man (Philip Michael Thomas) to pass the time and soothe their nerves. Meanwhile, their getaway car approaches, driven at high speeds by Samson (Barry White). While it doesn’t take up much of the running time, the framing story is put to great use. Other than giving us a foothold in the chaos to come, its rural Southern setting presents a strong contrast with the Harlem crime story to come.

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The film opens in the relatively tranquil South before moving into the urban murk.

Our three protagonists, Rabbit (Thomas), Bear (Barry White), and Preacher Fox (Charles Gordone), are leaving the South after Rabbit sells off his house to a brothel owner. They drive off to Harlem and quickly stir up the hornets, inciting a number of colourful incidents. What they discover is that the neighbourhood is far from a paradise of black brotherhood. The mafia holds the town under their thumb, spreading heroin among the population and siphoning money to the whiter areas downtown. The cops are in the bag for the mob as well, collecting protection money from vice and prostitution rings. Even the local revolutionary preacher is nothing but a fraud peddling radical politics and pigging off of his congregation’s generosity.

Unlike Heavy Traffic, which at least tangentially dealt with labourers and artists, there is a total lack of constructive labour going on in Coonskin. Everyone is either working for or patronizing criminal operations, creating a suffocating portrait of urban life. Bakshi stamps out all traces of romanticism; his Harlem is no paradise but a place to escape from, as illustrated in the best single scene in the film.

A black mother rocks her child to sleep and tells the audience the story of a cockroach who lived in the floorboards of her rickety apartment. She fades into a monochrome silhouette while the animated story plays out against a black background, paying homage to the style of cartoonist George Herriman. The cockroach, which is at first a source of annoyance and fear, gradually sticks around so long that it becomes a familiar touchstone in the apartment, and the woman and the bug eventually stop taking their Tom and Jerry chases seriously. Eventually, though, the little insect packs up his bags and leaves, telling his human roommate that there’s no future in Harlem and that he has to move on to a better place. The drawings, voiceover, and pacing of the scene contribute to a sense of loneliness and despair, the more private and inward side of suffering in Coonskin. 

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Most of the time, though, we’re following our trio of animal protagonists on their quest to make it in the city. Rabbit, in a parody of the classic briar patch story, tricks the false prophet into throwing him into a garbage can out the window. He kills the preacher and goes on a quest to break the grip of the mob on the city and keep Harlem’s crime business in black hands. We see his confrontations with a racist and homophobic Irish cop and his employer, the grotesque Godfather. Bear eventually becomes a mafia boxer and media sensation, while Preacher Fox runs a church/brothel where he sells one-day marriages to make the whole business nice and legal. Each of them is portrayed in a manner befitting their animal namesakes: Rabbit is a clever survivor, Bear a lumbering giant who wants to protect his people and his friends, and Fox is, well, not to be trusted. Unlike the original Remus tales, their escapades are not meant to teach moral lessons as much as to express righteous outrage at racism and exploitation. None of our leads are honourable, and their main virtue is their loyalty and their unwavering opposition to the Mafia and the police. They survive, and in a city this bleak, they have little else to which they can aspire. And if they can get rich while doing it, so much the better.

While Bakshi’s use of racial stereotypes is what rightly gets the most attention from critics, the black caricatures are actually less intriguing to me than his treatment of the Godfather’s family. To put it bluntly, he pushes his images into an almost pure surrealism. Our mafia kingpin and his family live in the New York subway at some indeterminate location. Their living space is depicted as literally hellish, populated by bloodsucking imps, nude nymphs, and the diabolical spectacle of the Godfather himself. His body is disgusting and alienating, particularly his face, which looks like the aftermath of an unlucky meteor shower. He speaks in a stereotypical Italian accent and consorts with his prime advisor, a Punchinello-esque child (or person of short stature) clown who swings around the subway on a rope. On first viewing, the effect is jarring. The world of the mob, while showing the polar opposite of the romanticism of Coppola’s The Godfather, is also completely detached from reality.

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Coonskin is a chance for Bakshi to take caricatures and try to wring cartoony catharsis out of them. Every racist character is given an over-the-top comeuppance, whether trapped in a tar baby posing as Rabbit, burned to death while wearing blackface and a minstrel outfit, or painted black and set loose for the cops to slaughter them. One of animation’s greatest assets is that it can freely use abstract or more iconic imagery to communicate more clearly and more indirectly than live action. Caricature is one of the most politically and racially loaded techniques available to animators, and Bakshi and his collaborators have gleeful fun throughout Coonskin skewering white hypocrisy, black sellouts, Italian mobsters, gay drag queens/mafia hitmen, and the entire edifice of Disney-sanctioned stories about racial harmony. The film doesn’t have political points to make; it has targets to destroy. It’s an almost pure blast of negative energy that has no patience for humanity or tenderness. If we agree with its portrait of life in mid-70s New York, we have to conclude that the film matches its subject matter perfectly.

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Bear, Rabbit, and Fox strolling into Harlem for the first time.

At the beginning of this series, I mentioned that Bakshi fits perfectly into the New Hollywood. One of the reasons why I said that is that his films victimize women constantly and in ways that are, unlike his treatment of racial and class issues, uncritical. Throughout his filmography, women are helpless victims on one hand or are just shoved into misogynistic forms. This is par for the course in American cinema in the 70s, which was if anything more hostile to women than earlier eras, with a distinctly macho air to most of its output. In Coonskin, the main offender in this regard is the figure of Miss America, a symbolic succubus who is shown as a busty blonde with a freckled face and a gun in her vagina. Her main role is adjacent to the plot, brutalizing a black man who represents African American struggles, switching from an integrationist to a revolutionary and finally to an execution victim. I don’t have a problem with the point that the United States curries favour with black people and then crushes them underfoot, but that the film sexualizes the allegory. And while it’s true that white women have been complicit in enforcing racism in the United States, the depiction here still soured on me almost immediately.

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Like all of Bakshi’s work, Coonskin never aspires to perfection. It spits on perfect, contemptuous of whitewashing and romanticism of any kind. Here the “Bakshi film” reaches its maximum potency and noxiousness, a kind of protest or propaganda film that dares you to blame the messenger for making you feel bad about the state of the world. There’s room in the world for films like this, ugly and ungainly as they are. Coonskin marks the end of Bakshi’s most controversial work, as it was protested by former civil rights group CORE (the group that endorsed Nixon for President and works as a shill for oil corporations today). From now on, Bakshi got much more palatable but, arguably, much less important as his voice shifted from that of an outsider who lucked into the system to someone working in more familiar modes. Still, he might have a few twists waiting for us in the land of Wizards.