Deconstructing Coonskin

by Latoya Peterson

Coonskin is a 1975 film written and directed by Ralph Bakshi, about an African American rabbit, fox, and bear who rise to the top of the organized crime racket in Harlem, encountering corrupt law enforcement, con artists and the Mafia. The film, which combines live-action with animation, stars Philip Michael Thomas, Charles Gordone, Barry White and Scatman Crothers, all of whom appear in both live-action and animated sequences. Coonskin utilizes a number of references to various elements from African American culture, ranging from African folk tales to the work of cartoonist George Herriman,[2][3] and satirizes racist and other stereotypes,[3] as well as the blaxploitation genre,[3] Song of the South,[1] and The Godfather.[2]

Originally produced under the titles Harlem Nights[1][4] and Coonskin No More…,[5] Coonskin encountered extreme controversy before its original theatrical release when the Congress of Racial Equality strongly criticized the content as being racist, although none of the group’s members had seen the film.[1][2] When the film was finally released, Bryanston gave it limited distribution and initially received negative reviews. Later re-released under the titles Bustin’ Out[1] and Street Fight,[1][3] Coonskin has since been reappraised, with many considering it to be one of Bakshi’s finest works.[1][3]

—From the Coonskin Wikipedia entry

I rewatched Coonskin over the weekend, and like I said in the original post, I still don’t know how to feel. I think Winn has the best summary of Coonskin:

I too am a fan of Bakshi’s overall body of work, but he is really clueless when it comes to Coonskin, and it’s pretty much indefensible, despite the participation of Barry White, Philip Michael Thomas, and the original Magical Negro himself, Scatman Crothers. Bakshi is intending to satirize not only racism, but also homophobia, the Mafia, and antiSemitism, and uses African folklore and darky iconography transposed to an urban setting to do so. However, he falls prey to the mistakes many with good intentions make when they attempt to tell stories that are not their own. Bakshi ends up reinforcing many of the stereotypes he sought to dismantle, and there are many more layers to the imagery and tropes he presents than even he realizes. Interestingly, Bakshi once described Coonskin as “about blacks and for whites”, and unfortunately, I think that sums it up in ways Bakshi never intended.

Over the past few weeks I have read a lot of the interviews that feature Bakshi, trying to understand his mindset in creating the film. While I encourage everyone to watch the film, I have done a short analysis of some of key components of the film below.


Black Cultural References


Archy and Mehitabel

Bakshi explains a lot of the reference points for the film by drawing from his own experience and some what forgotten cultural cannons. In part 3 of 10, there is a monologue by a black woman describing the demise of her relationship with a cockroach. This is the only time in the film a black female character speaks for herself, not specifically in response to a male character. The words coming from Mehitabel are tinged with loneliness and regret, describing the pain of abandonment that black women experienced in that era.

In an interview with Metroactive Movies, Bakshi puts the reference into context:

Metro: Another sequence that I wondered about was the pastiche of George Herriman and Don Marquis’s “Archy and Mehitabel,” in a monologue about a cockroach that leaves the woman who loves him.

[NOTE: Marquis (1878-1937), a columnist for the New York Sun, was one of the few who managed to produce poetry on a deadline. His most famous character was a poetry-writing reincarnated cockroach named Archy, and his best pal, the alley cat Mehitabel. It sounds cute, though it isn't; often Marquis rivaled e.e. cummings. Marquis' illustrator was George Herriman, creator of the noblest comic strip of them all, Krazy Kat.]

Bakshi: Herriman is my favorite cartoonist. He was mulatto.

Metro: That’s right, he kept it a secret, though. So that’s why he’s referred to in the film.

Bakshi: The deal with the story of Malcolm the cockroach who leaves the woman who’s been taking care of him is based on personal experiences of black men I knew who couldn’t afford to feed their families, so they left because they couldn’t stand to see them suffer.


Br’er Rabbit and Black American Folklore

While watching the movie, Rabbit is caught in a tough situation where he is almost killed by the shakedown pastor he stole money from. Struck by inspiration, he starts begging “Please don’t throw me out the window to that cold ground below! Shoot me, strangle me, do anything you want…just don’t throw me into that garbage can!” Predictably, they throw Rabbit out of the window and I chimed in for the next line: ” ‘Cause I’se born and raised in a garbage can.”

My boyfriend looked at me like I was tripping. “What,” I asked, “You never heard of Br’er Rabbit?”

Apparently, he hadn’t. Br’er Rabbit (or Brother Rabbit or Briar Rabbit) is part of that dying tradition of American Folklore – things I grew up learning (along with Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, and John Henry) but that are not considered standard knowledge and may or may not be taught in school. Attributed to slave narratives (though also linked to Native American traditional stories) Br’er Rabbit tales feature a trickster who can be the villain or the hero using his wits to outsmart his enemies. This was a clever inclusion on Bakshi’s part.

The Muhammad Ali/Sonny Liston Fight

This one was a cultural reference I didn’t get. Near the end of the film, Brother Bear becomes a boxer for the mafia. In response, Rabbit finds his own boxer (who represents Muhammad Ali) to take on Bear. The other boxer gets into the ring and taunts Bear, calling him an Uncle Tom. My boyfriend then drew a parallel to the Muhammad Ali/Sonny Liston fights which appears to be backed up by the movie. Anyone else have any thoughts on this?

Miss America

Coonskin speaks frankly about the legacy of slavery. After Mehitabel’s soliloquy, Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear, and Brother Fox walk around Harlem taking in the view from the streets. After watching a homeless man joyously picking a “genuine cotton sweater” out of the trash, Fox curses the man for getting excited about “some goddamn old sweater.” Rabbit cautions him to remember that the man’s father was a slave, and that “some brothers were beat up so bad that they never come around.”

The next scene is the entrance of Miss America. Represented as a buxom blond with light freckles, America is often pursued by hapless black men in search of reconciliation, but ends up abusing them physically or accusing them of rape after luring them to her side. Black men are often shown fighting her, trying to distance themselves from her, or trying to win her favor, but a true union with America often remains frustratingly out of reach. It is an apt metaphor for the African-American struggle to correct a dysfunctional relationship with our nation, but sexualization of the interactions between the black men and Miss America reinforce stereotypes as it challenges the relationship dynamic.


The Idea of False Salvation

It could a pointed commentary on shakedown artists, fake preachers who hustle the poor out of money with false promises of salvation…or it could be construed as an indictment of black church culture. There are multiple scenes in Coonskin when people who are supposedly of faith act completely out of character – I think the interpretation of the scenes depends on your own life experiences.

The Role of Women

In this film, women are generally decorative objects with no will or sovereignty of their own. This is demonstrated clearly in part 6 of 10, when a racist cop is lured to Rabbit’s lair and tempted by a topless live-action black woman performing a provocative dance while another scantily-clad animated black woman drugs him. Throughout the movie, women are seen as prostitutes or possessions, decorative arm candy, a prize to be had. We have no voices here. When I watch the film with men, it is almost as if we are watching two different movies.


The Mafia, Gay People, and being “Anti-Idiot”

I haven’t been able to find a good explanation as to the role and prominence of effeminate gay white men in Coonskin from Bakshi. I’m sure he was trying to make some kind of statement, but whatever it was is lost on me. I did find a few quotes about the Mafia imagery (emphasis mine):

Metro: Coonskin is a very angry film. Can you describe what your state of mind was like writing it?

Bakshi: Um, I’d say it was a series of different states of mind. The issue is, if you want real freedom, freedom comes with being able to look at what’s right and what’s wrong about your people. It isn’t about shoving things under the rug. When I made the film, there were con artists in the black liberation movement. That explains the part about Savior manipulating the masses, and the Mafia helping to spread drugs under the protection of racist cops.

There isn’t a person growing up in America, who doesn’t have run-ins with some racist, Jew or Italian joke, and the question is how did you react in those moments? I tried to analyze these situations, so these movies worked on that level. I was also very young and naïve when I made Coonskin, naïve enough to think that everything would be OK as long as I was honest. Another thing that I was doing was making fun of the black exploitation movies, the ones where if you’re white, you’re dead.

[...]

Metro: While the film has a reputation for racism, it is really at its most angry when it goes after The Godfather, who pits Brother Fox, Brother Bear and Brother Rabbit against each other. The Godfather looks like a red-eyed warthog, and he’s voiced by an uncredited Al “Grandpa” Lewis.

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. As for what [producer] Al Ruddy thought, Al could care less! Al thought Coonskin was wonderful … every one thought the picture was going to be anti-black, but I intended it to be anti-idiot.

[...]

Metro: There is one baffling image: The Godfather’s wife tries to kill her husband as punishment for sending his sons out to get killed. And after she herself is shot, she turns into a butterfly.

Bakshi: She’s meant to be a character of great purity. Giving birth is an act of great purity. 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 [Mafia] guys don’t give you any room.

The Future of Coonskin

As I wrote in the original post, the tee-shirt line Supreme is selling expensive tee-shirts with Coonskin prints on them. In addition, Al Sharpton’s protests of yesteryear are mostly forgotten and cinematic icons like Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino are open fans of the film.

Other interviews with Bakshi have reported that the Wu-Tang Clan was interested in creating a sequel to Coonskin:

UGO: I read you met with the Wu-Tang Clan recently.

RALPH: Yes, they were a lot of fun. They want to do Coonskin 2. Rappers love Coonskin because it’s pretty much early rap with the poems and attitude. I walked into a meeting with the Wu-Tang Clan and two of the guys got up and recited Coonskin in its entirety. I’ve spoken to [Coonskin producer] Al Ruddy, who just won an Oscar for Million Dollar Baby. Albert says he’d love to do it and I’d love to do it with the Wu-Tang Clan. We’ve left it with the agents, who will probably kill it, but let’s hope for the best.

It appears that Coonskin has officially hit cult status, despite not being released on DVD.

However, there is one question that still remains – is Coonskin racist?