by Racialicious Special Correspondent Latoya Peterson
Now, as an ’80s baby I had no idea what Coonskin was. So I did a bit of searching.
During the production of Heavy Traffic, filmmaker Ralph Bakshi met and developed an instant friendship with producer Albert S. Ruddy during a screening of The Godfather. Bakshi sold Ruddy on making a film based on the Uncle Remus storybooks, which would also contain elements satirizing exploitation films with African American casts. When Steve Krantz, the producer of both Heavy Traffic and Bakshi’s debut feature, Fritz the Cat, learned that Bakshi would work with Ruddy, Krantz locked Bakshi out of the studio. After two weeks, Krantz asked Bakshi back to finish the picture, quickly realizing no one could come close to the job. In 1973, production of Coonskin began under the working title Harlem Nights, with Paramount Pictures originally attached to distribute the film. The title was eventually changed to Coonskin No More… and finally to Coonskin. Bakshi hired several black animators to work on Coonskin and another feature, Hey Good Lookin’. At the time, there were no black animators working at the Walt Disney Company.
Coonskin uses a variety of racist caricatures from blackface minstrelsy and darky iconography, including stereotypes featured in Hollywood films and cartoons, presented in a manner that was intended to satirize the racism of the material and images rather than reinforce it. In the book That’s Blaxploitation! Roots of the Baadasssss ‘Tuded X by an All-Whyte Jury), Darius James writes that “Bakshi pukes the iconagraphic bile of a racist culture back in its stupid, bloated face, wipes his chin and smiles Dirty Harry style. [...] He subverts the context of Hollywood’s entire catalogue of racist black iconography through a series of swift cross-edits of original and appropriated footage.” The film also features a number of equally exaggerated portrayals of white Southerners, Italians and homosexuals, also presented in a satirical context. According to Bakshi, although producer Albert S. Ruddy was “fine” with the satire, it seemed that no one really knew what Bakshi was up to as he worked on the film. “Every one thought the picture was going to be anti-black. I intended it to be anti-idiot.”
In his review for The Hollywood Reporter, Arthur Knight wrote “Coonskin is not anti-black. Nor is it anti-Jewish, anti-Italian, or anti-American, all of whom fall prey to Bakshi’s wicked caricaturist’s pen as intensely as any of the blacks in his movie. What Bakshi is against, as this film makes abundantly clear, is the cheats, the rip-off artists, the hypocrites, the phonies, the con men and the organized criminals of this world, regardless of race, color, or creed.” The film is most critical in its portrayal of the Mafia. According to Bakshi, “I was incensed at all the hero worship of those guys in The Godfather; Pacino and Caan did such a great job of making you like them. [...] One thing that stunned me about The Godfather movie: here’s a mother who gives birth to children, and her husband essentially gets all her sons killed. In Coonskin, she gets her revenge, but also gets shot. She turns into a butterfly and gets crushed. [...] These guys don’t give you any room.”
Obviously, this is something I had to see to understand. Luckily, there is a little miracle that goes by the name of YouTube.
Unfortunately, the first fifteen minutes has been lost to time.
I watched the film last week and had so many reactions to the subject matter, I am going to do a full post on analyzing the references and images in the movie, to be published next week.
Until then, I need to ask – has anyone else watched this movie? (Feel free to go watch it now.) If so, what were your impressions?