Coonskin Revisited

by Guest Contributor Ali

A couple of weeks ago Latoya posted an entry titled Deconstructing Coonskin here at Racialicious. I was aware of the film prior to this although I had never seen it in its entirety. I had attempted to watch Coonskin several times, but could never seem to make it past part 3 on YouTube. Something about the film that I couldn’t quite put my finger on made me too uncomfortable to make it all the way to the end. About a week after Latoya’s post I happened upon a post on another blog informing me that Ralph Bakshi would be in the city April 18-20 for a series of events. The main component of the series was a back-to-back screening of two of his most popular films, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin (also known as Streetfight). Also, Bakshi himself was to appear at the screening for a Q+A session. Talk about impeccable timing! I passed this info along to Latoya and she asked me if I wouldn’t mind checking out the screening and reporting back to her. The following is my report.

Part my longstanding apprehension about Coonskin was that I wasn’t quite sure what Bakshi was trying to convey. The opportunity to hear him talk about the film and describe its purpose and his intent seemed like a perfect opportunity to clear up the confusion. I attended the full screening, mainly because I wanted to note the change, if any, in audience make up for each film. Surprisingly the audience remained pretty homogeneous for both features. Although there were a few more black viewers for Coonskin (the audience for Coonskin was larger in general) the audience was comprised mostly of single white men. There was a sprinkling of female viewers, most of whom were also white. (On a completely unrelated note, the couple in front of me were making out through a good portion of the film. Apparently Coonskin is a date movie, who knew?)

The most eye opening portion of the night was definitely the Q+A. Bakshi offered a great deal of insight on the art of animation and the creation process for both films. Apparently much of the crew that worked on Coonskin were former animators from MGM and Disney. He also noted that some animators were so offended/uncomfortable with the subject matter that they walked from the project. The best question of the evening came from a young black man who asked Bakshi why he felt it necessary to utilize racial stereotyping in Heavy Traffic. He was specifically referring a dream sequence in which a black man transforms into a monkey before ripping the face off of an Italian man. Bakshi seemed rather taken aback and slightly offended by the question; that’s when things got rather interesting.

Ralph Bakshi’s answer to the question ranged from the frequent utilization of stereotyping in cartooning to black support for Barack Obama and his frustration with “so-called black leaders”. He began by explaining that the art of animation is about highlighting extremes and stereotypes are a very ideal vehicle for expressing human extremes. He then went on to say that people are the way they are and he can’t be faulted for depicting them as such because he didn’t make them that way. Next he launched into criticism of those who have mistakenly categorized him as a racist.

Essentially Bakshi said that he made Coonskin to express his frustration about the stereotyping of blacks by whites and the exploitation of blacks “by their own leaders.” He specifically wanted to comment on the mistreatment of blacks by the mafia, which he feels is largely responsible for the proliferation of illicit drugs in poor black communities. He described the film as being “pro-black and anti-mafia”. In contrast to his disappointment at popular black leaders protesting the film he mentioned that rappers “love” the film. He even went so far as to say that he believes Coonskin invented rap. I’ve read a handful of interviews where he points out rapper’s affinity for the film. Perhaps this legitimizes its value to black America in his mind but I don’t understand how he could view a random sampling of rappers as a more legitimate mouth piece for black America than Al Sharton or C.O.R.E., both of whom protested the film’s initial release. The young man’s question had clearly hit a sore spot for Bakshi. It seems that he never fully recovered from the criticism he received after releasing Coonskin. Bakshi seems to view himself as pro-black and an ally of the black community.

For me the turning point of the evening occurred when Bakshi stated that, “every black person in the country should be behind Obama.” He also mentioned his disappointment that black leaders had not developed a movement of solidarity to support Obama. Unfortunately he didn’t stick around to answer additional questions after the screening of Coonskin. If he had it would have given me the opportunity to ask him why he felt entitled to tell me who to vote for. I also wanted the opportunity to ask about his views on anti-racism and if he identifies as an anti-racist.

After hearing Ralph Bakshi speak I am left wondering if Coonskin is more of an exercise in fetishizing black culture and the African American experience than one of championing it. In my eyes the Obama comment was very revealing of the way Bakshi views Black America and African Americans. He sees himself as an advocate but his comments suggest to me that he’s acting more as a paternalistic care taker. Bakshi described his film as his attempt to vindicate blacks for certain injustices. It almost seems as if he feels that he is doing us a favor by exacting animated revenge on variety of foes on our behalf. This egalitarian effort seems to be incongruous with his belief that blacks aren’t even capable of the complexity of thought required to support a candidate that shares your values rather than one who simply looks like you.

As I sat and looked around the theater I began to wonder why we were all there. If the film has a large cult following of blacks why was the crowd not reflective of this? What were the motivations of the audience members in that theater? Were they revolutionaries out to change the world? Is viewing a Bakshi film even meant to be a radical/political experience? How many people in that theater were fans of Malcolm, Martin and Marcus? How many supporters of reparations or advocates of affirmative action were in the house? How many viewers were down for interrupting systems of unearned privilege or dismantling white supremacy in our country? Or were they simply there because the experience of watching a racially charged film in a non-threatening (mostly white) setting was liberating for them?

I attending the screening with the hope of acquiring some insight into various issues that have always surrounded this film for me but I left with more questions that ever. For fans of Bakshi, what is the affinity for his work (especially for Coonskin) built upon? Is there a shared bond of political awareness? Sympathy for the state of the black union? A nerdish love of animation? Perhaps the draw, for some, is born of something more sinister? After having heard Bakshi speak I find myself asking the same question Dave Chappelle must have mulled over and over in his head right before he made the decision to end his show. Is the audience laughing at the film or with it? When over seventy-five percent of the audience at a pro-black film is middle-aged white males, what does that say about the authenticity of the film? If Coonskin is Bakshi’s love song to Black America, after watching the film and hearing him speak, I must say, it isn’t really putting me in “the mood.”