Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Director Report Card: Ralph Bakshi (1975)

3. Coonskin

The most controversial film in a career full of them, “Coonskin” was picketed by Al Sharpton and caused rioting. It’s a deeply politically incorrect film about subverting, satirizing, and mocking racial stereotypes by extending them to their most absurd, grotesque, cartoonish limits. It's a rough piece of satire and certainly not for everyone. The film opens with a black character looking directly into the camera and shouting, “Fuck you!” That’s the kind of movie this is.

The plot was loosely inspired by the Uncle Reemus stories. In another live action framing device, which the film returns to several times, a frantic preacher teams up with Barry White to bust a mutual friend and brother out of jail. While waiting for their rescue team, the imprisoned brother waits with Scatman Crothers, who tells him the story of Briar Rabbit, Briar Bear, and Preacher Fox.

The animation sequence that follows initially seems to be “Song of the South” as filtered through ‘70s blaxploitation. The early scenes of redneck cops shooting up a brothel and the trio’s plan to take out the three ruling forces in Harlem; a conman religious figure, a corrupt cop, and the mob; especially sets up that premise. However, the movie quickly reveals itself to be a biting satire on racist iconology. The Simple Savior/Black Jesus scenes are particularly grotesque in their complete revulsion at religious corruption and the ways Christianity has been used to manipulate. The movie even takes its potshots at organized sports, at how becoming an athlete was the only way for a black man to become accepted in a white culture.

The movie doesn’t limit itself to black stereotypes. The Italian Mob, whom Bakshi has a well-known hatred of, maybe get the worst of it. The Godfather is without a doubt the most grotesque figure in the film. Among his group of sons, three of them are incestuous, lisping homosexuals. (There are actually a couple of characters like that in this movie.) One even dresses and acts like John Wayne, for a number of sociopolitical reasons I’m sure. The movie fires specifically at “The Godfather” in the scene were the mob boss’ wife and the mother of his sons, tired of her boys being killed because of their father’s selfish needs, turns on her husband. The revenge is short lived though, since she’s shot down. Still, Bakshi clearly sympathizes with the woman since her death scene has her transforming into a beautiful butterfly.

Despite the fairly straight-forward story, Bakshi brings his typically wild, free-form style to the proceedings. There are a lot of vignettes within the film that aren’t related to the main story, all of them about the black experience in America. One, perhaps the film’s best moment, is a monologue from a mother living in the ghetto about the cockroach that came to live with her, how she fell in love with him, and how he eventually had to live her behind. Other segments are even looser, revolving around a character called Miss America, a blond, voluptuous representation of the country. She’s, let’s just say, less then kind to the black men who accost her throughout the film, providing some of the most biting, and darkly funny moments in the film. Stock footage from “Birth of a Nation” and other racist, early films are trotted out a few times as well. An early use of the Looney Tunes spiral porthole opening thing also seems to cast the film as a piss-take on the frequently racist imagery in classic animation.

In general, Bakshi doesn’t excuse himself from going off on surreal tangents. The scene in which the corrupt, viciously racist cop is drugged with LSD leads to a wild trip sequence, involving giant demons flying around and chewing on people’s eyeballs. The mob boss is assisted by a headless black stud and a group of flying friaries with needles and thread, an odd touch that remains unexplained. One notable sequence has a giant eight-ball exploding into a choir of minstrel singers. The boxing sequences later in the film are highly energetic, cutting between live action and animation.

The voice cast is excellent. Barry White plays Brother Bear and, with his deep rolling baritone, is a naturally strong voice actor. Charles Gordone is wild and verbose as Preacher Fox. If nothing else, the movie is really a showcase for Scatman Crothers who, in addition to narrating the story, also voices numerous characters throughout the film. After years of hearing Crothers on cartoon shows like “Transformers,” it’s certainly shocking to hear him deliver enraged statements on his race. Also listen for an uncredited Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis as the voice of the Godfather. The music is filled with excellent seventies funk. The opening song, a deeply politically incorrect monologue sang by Crothers, is also insanely catchy even if I dissuade you from singing it in public.

“Coonskin,” also released as “Street Fight” and “Bustin’ Out,” was described by the NAACP at the time of release as “a difficult satire.” That’s about right. It’s certainly not the most accessible film but it does provide plenty of food for thought. The film was certainly ahead of it’s time since shows like “South Park” make a weekly business of such things. Sure, a few times I wonder how entitled a white Jew like Ralph Bakshi is to speak to what it was like to be a black man living in seventies Harlem, but never the less the film makes a lot of valid points. After years of general unavailability, it was finally given a proper DVD release just a few months back. Perhaps not the filmmaker’s best film but certainly his most passionate, I recommend you track it down yourself, if any of the above sounds interesting. It’s an intelligent, fiery satire of a highly difficult subject, all carried out in Bakshi’s anarchic, unique style. [Grade: A-]

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