Coonskin: The Only Animated Blaxpolitation Film

Written and directed infamous animator Ralph Bakshi. Just coming off the heels of his two masterpieces Fritz the Cat (The first X-Rated cartoon) and the superior Heavy Traffic (Which wasn’t X-rated, even though it had more sex and violence than the previous one), he continued to break animation molds by securing funding for the first, and only, animated blaxploitation film. He apparently did this by claiming to producers that it would be a modern (70s modern) remake of Disney’s classic Song of the South. And in a sense it was, though more as an evil satire.  

It is set in the framing device of Scatman Crothers and Philip Michael Thomas (of original Miami Vice fame) breaking out of jail and waiting for Barry White and Charles Gordone to pick them up. To pass the time Scatman Crothers begins to tell the tale of three animated brothers, Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear, and Preacher Fox.

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After getting in trouble for pimping out a Southern sheriff’s daughter, the trio flee to Harlem to make it big. There, they run across all sorts of scams, brothels, drug dens, and religious leaders- each ripping off the community. Eventually it is discovered that they are all run by the mafia and its Godfather, leading to a violent showdown between the two groups.

Interestingly enough all of the Godfather’s sons are homosexuals. This was a take on the gay bar scene in NYC at the time. Every gay bar then was run by the mafia, as they paid off the cops to look the other way. Which is why the old gay bars had such a bad reputation for drugs and prostitution (Hey the mob had to do something with their gay family members). My favorite one is the son who wears lipstick, a leather vest and pants, straps on a holster, and talks like John Wayne.

Interspersed in the main plot are a series of vignettes with the residents of Harlem talking about racial problems, or a blond, blue-eyed Ms. America (the personification of the country) who seduces a black man only to beat or kill him.

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One of the reasons why you may never had heard about this film (apart from your general ignorance) is that there were heavy protests surrounding its opening in New York. The Congress for Racial Equality lead by Al Sharpton condemned the film, harassed people going to see it, and set off smoke bombs during performances to disrupt the showings. On the opening night at the Museum of Modern Art they crashed the question-and-answer session and it degenerated into a shouting match. The NAACP claimed it was a “difficult satire”- whatever the hell that means- and half-heartedly offered written support for the protest, but did not engage in any activities. Baksi responded to the criticism by stating, “I called Sharpton a black middle-class fucking 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.”

Of course, anyone who sees the film will note two things: First, the stereotypes are spread around. No particular racial group is shown as paragons of virtue. Italians, Jews, and Irish are also equally skewered. Second, the characters are all a reverse of black stereotypical characters as shown in old Hollywood films. Each one is carefully selected and turned on its head.

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While this film may lack something in polish, it certainly makes up for that in style. Bakshi was the anti-Disney of the 1970s, when different film experimentation was beginning to be embraced by the mainstream. It has a coolness, a freshness that many other blaxploitation films do not. Deftly mixing animation and live action, the director managed to overcome budget limitations and give the film a realistic feel, despite the bizarre characters. This was also aided by Bakshi’s research where he went to Harlem and recorded people talking about life there. Much of this was used in the vignettes.

Bakshi was ahead of his time. Nowadays, with The Simpsons, Archer, Family Guy and so on, we are used to the idea of cartoons for adults. When Bakshi’s films broke out, they were really something different. As Bakshi 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.”

The entire film is below. Enjoy and Caveat Emptor.


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