2013 S&A Highlights: Revisiting The Controversy That Was 'Coonskin'

Features
by Sergio
December 31, 2013 4:02 PM
10 Comments
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Editor's note: As 2013 comes to an end, I'll be reposting some of our highlights published during the year. Those who've already read each one can obviously skip them, or revisit if you'd like. For those who joined us later in the year, missing many of these posts from earlier in the year, they will probably be new items. Here's the 6th of many to come, originally posted in February 2013, which generated some good chatter on this blog, and elsewhere. Happy New Year to you all! 

Recent news that animator Ralph Bakshi is planning a comeback to feature film animation with a new project, The Last Days of Coney Island, for which he is currently trying to raise funds for on Kickstarter, brings back to mind a piece I wrote for S & A almost three 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 now 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 and created such 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 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 Thomasremember 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 is told several stories by a fellow escapee (Scatman Crothers), presented 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 and animated feature Song of the South. and intended to attack and ridicule black stereotypes by purposely using offensive black iconography, the film, while somewhat a muddled mess (too many ideas thrown about with enough content or 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 himself  hated the title Coonskin, which he always claimed was forced on the film by 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 thing 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, Byanston Distribution, 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 got protests and demonstrations, even one incident at a New York theater, where a smoke bomb was thrown during a screening of the film. 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 release, Byanston itself went out of business leaving the film in limbo.

However, 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, now claiming the film as understood 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 three years ago Shout Factory released the film on DVD though still under its Street Fight title. However, without much fanfare or notice, Xenon Video, last spring, released a newly restored and re-mastered version of the film under its original Coonskin title.

And be forwarned, there is also a Coonskin 2 DVD out there as well, but it’s actually Bakshi’s 1982 film Hey Good Looking (retitled by the DVD distributor to cash in on the interest of 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.

Yet Coonskin is definitely a visually striking movie that’s very well worth seeing, and it would be interesting to see how the film plays now some 38 years later. And considering some of the black imagery we’ve seen in the ensuing decades, Coonskin may seem pretty mild nowadays.

Here's the trailer for the DVD:

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10 Comments

  • Dino | December 31, 2013 5:39 PMReply

    Indeed one of my favorite movies to watch. Especially with a group. The discussions afterwards are indeed interesting and all over the board. Had the VHS 15 years ago and was stolen from me. Now have the DVD under it original title.

  • Leela Debris | November 6, 2013 1:11 AMReply

    I honestly don’t know what makes a group of people protest anything, that has nothing to do with a person’s civil rights, to be honest. However I do feel like a lot of these people are misguided and get caught of the few minutes of imagery from a trailer rather than actually take the time out to watch what the film itself is really about.
    For example, take Ralph Bakshi’s infamous animated/live action feature film “coonskin” there were protesters out about that film before it was even released. Why? Because of some of the offensive “black faced” characters, there was “ brother rabbit” Brother “ bear” and “ preacher fox” the characters were an obvious stair to the old Brier Rabbit tales and to Disney’s song of the south….( which I honestly I didn’t find that film offensive either, just really boring lol). The point is, I think a lot of people wish to condemn something even before they gave it a chance to watc

  • KBC | February 9, 2013 1:08 PMReply

    I saw this movie for the first time two weeks ago (I'd heard about it - a lot - for at least 15 years prior). I don't know if it's possible to be simultaneously offended and impressed by something, but I was feeling both emotions simultaneously and made my viewing experience a little awkward to process. After the film ended, I'd' felt like _I_ was on "H" - it's quite a bizarre movie.

  • AI | February 6, 2013 7:18 PMReply

    never heard of this. thanks.

  • Vann Digital Networks | February 3, 2013 11:08 PMReply

    i was a little boy when i seen this movie. good to go back in time...

  • TYRON TACKETT | February 3, 2013 4:24 PMReply

    A great animated film. Wu-Tang used a sample from it. If you watched the Chappelle -he's samples Streetfights/Coonskin's opening title sequence that featured Scatman Crothers. The live action footage of Harlem and the NYC subway is priceless...Good to see Bakashi back in action. A slept on dude.

  • kid video | February 3, 2013 10:42 AMReply

    A friend told me about me about this last year, but havent seen it yet. Looks interesting. Great write up.

  • D.A. | February 2, 2013 9:38 PMReply

    I think I'm in love, I want to see it. And I love the write up.

  • lrobhubbard | February 2, 2013 4:19 PMReply

    Xenon did a good job with the remastering, but they should've sprung for extras to provide some context, such as a commentary by Bakshi, and some critical perspective.

  • DJP | February 2, 2013 3:43 PMReply

    That was a fascinating article. I was not familiar with this film. This is why I read Shadow & Act daily. Interesting, sometimes provocative and challenging articles about filmmaking from the Black perspective. Well done.

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