Wednesday, August 11, 2010

COONSKIN: Bustin' Out of Obscurity

There’s a long tradition in Blaxploitation of subverting racial symbols. From Black Caesar beating a cop to death with a shoe-shine box (after shoe-polishing his face black and forcing him to sing Al Jolson, no less) to the eponymous bale in Cotton Comes To Harlem.

All these examples pale in comparison to Ralph Bakshi’s 1975 masterpiece, Coonskin. The film is a cornucopia of racial symbolism. The dice, the watermelon, the banjo-gun, even Aunt Jemima chasing a frightened pancake with a gun. The film is so jam-packed with black rage that it’s astonishing that it was written and directed by a white man.

Which is, of course, the origin of the film’s controversy.
Coonskin may be THE most controversial cartoon ever. Seriously, it makes Song of the South look like The Princess and The Frog. In addition to the horrendous violence and over-the-top sexuality, Coonskin has enough stereotypes to offend many groups, be they black (crafty, violent, poverty-stricken), white (dirty cops and ignorant, whore-hungry crackers), Italians (fat, greedy gangsters). The Godfather is portrayed as a gross, corpulent slug (Marlon Brando meets Jabba the Hutt), on spindly legs, while two of his sons are flaming queens.

If Coonskin had come down squarely on Black peoples’ side, it could have been dismissed as simple exploitation. After all, several of the great Blaxploitation films were made by whites: such as Coffy, Foxy Brown, Cleopatra Jones, and Black Caesar. But Coonskin is not blindly pro-Black and anti-“The Man.” In some parts of them film, the apparent racism passes beyond simple parody, to hard-core satire.

Take for instance the character of Simple Savior. He is a fat and wealthy preacher who uses a militant black-power message to cheat folks out of their money. Rather then financing the promised “revolution,” Simple Savior just pockets his congregation’s offerings and donations. He puts on a magnificent show, performing stark naked, getting mock-crucified, and blasting photos of John Wayne, Elvis, and Richard Nixon. Had Al Sharpton actually seen Coonskin before mounting his belligerent, smoke-bomb-lobbing protest campaign, he’d have found Simple Savior a very unflattering caricature.

The title is no help at all. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fantastic title. It’s snappy and attention-grabbing, yet still symbolically loaded. It has 3 meanings:
1) The obvious reference to “Coon,” a nasty name for blacks.
2) A veiled reference to Davy Crocket, here symbolic of gung-ho, red-blooded, gun-slinging, John Wayne-worshipping, flag-fetishizing, hippie-hating, everything-buying white American culture.
3) You know…coon. As in raccoon. You know, because the characters are animals.

Some people like being offended. For them, Coonskin is a smorgasbord of potential outrage. Bakshi described his film as being “anti-idiot” rather than “anti-black,” and I share that sentiment. Perhaps, “anti-square” would be a better term. The hipsters dig Coonskin. Tarantino digs it. Wu Tang Klan digs it. The film has been critically re-assessed and recognized for its cinematic value. The fact that it’s STILL offensive is a testament to its strength as a cultural statement. Besides, modern audiences are far more familiar with adult animation. From the douchebag satire of  “South Park” to the devastating racial jabs of “The Boondocks,” there’s plenty of animated controversy to go around.  We’re ready.

This movie DEMANDS a DVD/Blu-Ray release. Time to get the man’s boot out of Coonskin.

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