Friday, May 11, 2012

Coonskin (1975, Ralph Bakshi)

Coonskin.  What an ugly beautiful masterpiece.  Just as the later White Dog would be, it's an anti-racist film mislabeled and buried as racist.  I first saw this as a kid in '87 when it initially came out on video--as Street Fight--and had no idea what the hell I was watching.  Now, revisiting the film as an adult, via the belated DVD release from Xenon, I can see what a brilliant, ballsy film it is, not only within Bakshi's oeuvre, but within the overall 1970s canon.  Bakshi's film still stuns today because of the bluntness of its imagery, its willingness to portray ugly stereotypes in the interest of advancing its anti-racist message.  Bakshi's films are almost uniformly sloppy and unformed in parts, but here there is more focus and conviction, a more satisfyingly complete vision than in most of his other efforts.

An agitprop piece attacking the institutionalized and casual racism towards African-Americans in the South and New York City, Coonskin's story unfolds in a manner similar to Song of the South, which it critiques along with blaxploitation and crime films.  The narrative involves three Southern blacks--a rabbit, a bear, and a fox--who go to Harlem and proceed to take down the forces--sham preachers, corrupt cops, organized crime figures--who exploit the black community.  This story is shared with the audience by a convict (Scatman Crothers) who tells it to a fellow inmate (Philip Michael Thomas) as they wait to be broken out of the joint by his friends (Barry White and Charles Gordone).  Thomas, White, and Gordone are the live action counterparts to the heroes of the story, Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear, and Preacher Fox.

Of course, because it's largely animated it can show things that couldn't be done, and to an extent and level of exaggeration not possible, in live action.  In spite of its budget limitations, Coonskin's mixing of animation and live action is just as effective, if not more so, than later, higher-budgeted examples of this practice.  Bakshi's character designs, mixed with William A. Fraker's photography, capture the gritty, un-gentrified--alive--NYC of the late 1960s and '70s.  

This is another fine example of the seemingly boundary-less nature of the American cinema of the '70s and it's just unfortunate that the film was sabotaged by outside forces--particularly that opportunistic fraud Al Sharpton--who couldn't actually be bothered to watch the thing before condemning it.  Over the years, the film's reputation has been bolstered by critics and supporters such as Richard Pryor, Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, and the Wu-Tang Clan (who apparently, at some point, expressed interest in producing a sequel). 

Simultaneously, hilarious, gross, thrilling, sobering, and beautiful, Coonskin is eye-opening and provocative, but to a productive, useful end.  It's unfortunate that the new DVD, which boasts an impressive 16x9 transfer, has no extra features.  If ever a film cried out for some supplemental materials to provide some historical context, this would be one.

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