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 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 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: