Sunday, July 19, 2015

Coonskin (USA, 1975)

Nine Things About the Movie Coonskin

1. Animator/director Ralph Bakshi helped define alternative and independent film in the 1970's. He is probably most famous for Heavy Traffic and his version of The Lord of the Rings. He made the first X-rated cartoon, Fritz the Cat. But I think Coonskin could be his masterpiece. It's probably also his least seen movie.

2. Coonskin is harsh, vulgar, and challenging, especially (but not exclusively) in terms of race relations. Depending on your perspective, the movie is anti-black, anti-white, anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-religion, or anti-America. Or all of them. It offends everybody. It's an amazing piece of film-making and cultural commentary. And this movie would never be made today.

3. The movie mixes live-action and animation to tell several different stories. It has an all-black cast, and Bakshi made the rare decision to hire black animators and graffiti artists to make the cartoon sequences. The animation is in his usual crude, street-wise style (he calls it "Ghetto Art) in an attempt to symbolize the way in which he and his friends grew up.

4. The movie is best appreciated if you have some knowledge of black history and urban culture. The main story is a cartoon about Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear, and Brother Fox (get the reference?) who move from the American South to Harlem after they lose their house. There, they run into a con man named Simple Savior, who claims to be the cousin of "Black Jesus". Simple Savior is a powerful man who makes a living by convincing the people of Harlem to give him money so he can buy them guns so they can go kill white people. Things happen, and Brother Rabbit ends up in charge of Simple Savior's operation.

5. There are several short stories interspersed in the main narrative. There is a series of vignettes in which a sexy woman symbolizing America seduces and then kills a black man.

6. Bakshi saves some of his harshest criticism for organized crime, and the way America has romanticized the Mafia. "The Godfather" is severely mocked in very disrespectful ways.

7. While the movie is crude in both subject matter and style, that doesn't mean it's dumb. Just the opposite: it's an intelligent, sophisticated satire. It carries both razor-wire and a club, sometimes sharply cutting through American hypocrisy and sometimes bludgeoning issues until there's nothing left to say.

8. When the film was finished, nobody knew what to do with it. The NAACP watched the movie and said that while the movie was "difficult", they supported the film. However, another civil rights organization, CORE, along with the Rev. Al Sharpton, condemned the film without seeing it. They protested and threw smoke bombs into movie theaters. Theater owners were intimidated, and the movie was pulled. It never received a proper theatrical release.

9. This is a hidden American gem that is just now being re-discovered by modern audiences. It sucks in all the racism, sexism, homophobia, and violence of America and furiously vomits it back in the audience's face, making no apologies. It should be seen by those that have the guts to admit that the movie is a mirror of ourselves - even 40 years after it was made.