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Revisiting the Controversy That Was ‘Coonskin’

Revisiting the Controversy That Was 'Coonskin'

Animator Ralph Bakshi’s current efforts at a return to film animation with a new project titled “The Last Days of Coney Island,” reminds me of a piece I wrote for S&A almost 5 years ago about his most controversial film.

But, first, to go back a bit, during the 1970’s, there was no bigger name in animation than Bakshi, with his cutting edge sex, drugs and violence-fueled, very adult animated “R” and “X”-rated features, such as, “Fritz The Cat,” “Heavy Traffic” and “Wizards.”. Needless to say, they were quite a long way from Disney.

And then there was his mostly forgotten 1978 animated film version of Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” long before Peter Jackson even thought about becoming a film director, that Bakshi made for United Artists, which encompassed the first half of the trilogy. However the planned follow up film to cover the second half was never made.

But in 1975, no film was more controversial nor created an intense furor that year than Bakshi’s animated adult film “Coonskin.”

On a roll after the highly successful “Fritz” and “Heavy Traffic,” Paramount signed him up, and he started working on a new film, originally titled “Harlem Nights” (of course, later used by Eddie Murphy as the title for his 1989 film), for producer Al Ruddy, who, at the time, was one of the biggest producers in Hollywood, due to the success of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather.”

“Coonskin,” like most of Bakshi’s work, was a mix of live action and animation, starring Barry White and actor/playwright Charles Gordone as two guys who rush to help out a friend, who’s just escaped from prison (Phillip Michael Thomas… remember him?), but are trapped by police in a shootout after a cop is killed by White.

While he’s waiting for his friends to get themselves out of their predicament, Thomas’ character is told several stories by a fellow escapee (Scatman Crothers), presented entirely in animation, about how Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear and Preacher Fox rose to the top of the criminal world in Harlem.

Clearly skewering Joel Harris’ “Ba’er Rabbit” stories from the early 1900′s, which Walt Disney used for his still inflammatory 1946 live action animated feature “Song of the South,” and intended to attack and ridicule black stereotypes by purposely using offensive black iconography, “Coonskin”, while somewhat a muddled mess (too many ideas without enough context), is never less than fascinating, with visually dizzying animation, and a real breakthrough in animated films.

It predates and clearly was an influence on later satires using and contextualizing black imagery, such as “The Boondocks” and “Bamboozled.” Bakshi even employed black animators and graffiti artists to work on the film – the first time that had ever happened on an animated feature movie.

Bakshi himself always believed that animation is an adult art form intended to be controversial. As he once said: “The art of cartooning is vulgarity. The only reason for cartooning to exist is to be on the edge. If you only take apart what they allow you to take apart, you’re Disney. Cartooning is a low-class, for-the-public art, just like graffiti art and rap music. Vulgar but believable, that’s the line I kept walking.”

However, Bakshi hated the title “Coonskin,” which he always claimed was forced on the film by producer Ruddy, who thought it was more controversial (i.e. commercial). Needless to say, controversial was right.

Though the NAACP actually supported the film, calling it a “difficult satire,” other civil rights groups, especially CORE, who knew a good opportunity when they saw one, went nuts over the film and staged several protests, even physically disrupting advance screenings.

And among the more vocal protesters back then, looking for his big chance to bask in the media spotlight, was a very young and still very processed-haired Al Sharpton, of whom Bakshi said in an interview in 2008: “I called Sharpton a black middle-class f—–g sell-out, and I’ll say it to his face. Al Sharpton is one of those guys who abused the revolution to support whatever it was he wanted.”

Feeling the heat, Paramount eventually decided not to release the film, and instead sold it to a small distribution company called Bryanston Pictures, which, at the time, was raking in money, having released the very successful Bruce Lee film, “Return of the Dragon,” Lee’s last fully completed picture the year before.

However, the film still drew protests and demonstrations, including an incident at a New York theater, where a smoke bomb was thrown during a screening. As a result, the film got a very limited release and quickly disappeared from sight (I still recall seeing it in a nearly empty theater when it was briefly in release). And less then three months after the film’s theatrical run, Bryanston went out of business, leaving the future of “Coonskin” in limbo.

The movie, as have many overlooked films, did develop a genuine cult following, especially after it was released on VHS, under the new title “Street Fight,” and has gone through a re-evaluation which now classifies the film as a misunderstood masterpiece. Even author and cultural critic Darius James said that the film “reads like an Uncle Remus folktale rewritten by Chester Himes with all the Yoruba-based surrealism of Nigerian-author Amos Tutuola.”

About 5 years ago, Shout Factory released the film on DVD though still under its “Street Fight” title. And 2 years after that, although without much fanfare or notice, Xenon Video released a newly restored and re-mastered version of the film under its original “Coonskin” title.

Be forewarned, there is also a “Coonskin 2” on DVD as well, but it’s actually Bakshi’s 1982 film “Hey Good Looking” (retitled by the DVD distributor to cash in on interest in “Coonskin”) which is set among Italian street gangs in 1950’s Brooklyn, and has no connection with “Coonskin” at all, except that they’re both made by Bakshi.

In closing, “Coonskin” is definitely a visually striking movie that’s very well worth seeing, and it would be interesting to observe how it plays today, some 40 years later. Considering some of the black imagery we’ve seen in the decades since it’s original release, “Coonskin” may seem pretty mild nowadays.

Here’s the trailer for the DVD:

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