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Coonskin (1975) - Minstrelsy 101

Coonskin (1975) - Minstrelsy 101

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This article was written by guest blogger Spencer Seams from the High and Low: A Kurosawa Podcast. Spencer Joined us for the Coonskin episode.

“I’m a Minstrel man, I’m the cleaning man, 
I’m the poor man, I’m the shoeshine man, 
I’m a Nigga Man, watch me dance.”

(Ah’m a Nigger Man, Lyrics by Ralph Bakshi, Music by Scatman Crothers)

The uncomfortable, misguided but powerful film, COONSKIN, opens with Scatman Crothers singing his heart out while attacking a defenseless ukulele. At first listen this song sounds…well, racist. It is racist. It’s a minstrel song. The more I listen to it, the more I realize that the lyrics are 1) smarter than they appear and 2) tell the story of the African-American experience, more specifically the way blacks are represented in film. Bakshi did his research, he wrote a true red, white, and blue 19th century minstrel song, or parody of a minstrel song in this case.

Minstrelsy is an American tradition. We want to ignore it but it’s the most American - apple pie and baseball, art form there is. It was what separated us from the British tradition of theatre and Shakespeare. Born in the age of slavery, Minstrelsy reflected the trappings of slavery in the guise of comedy and family friendly entertainment.

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1830, Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice blackened up for a song and dance number of the soon to be smash hit ‘Jumpin’ Jim Crow.’ Rice was a popular comedian who inadvertently created a massive cultural force that’s still alive and well. He was a Yankee. This single act changed United States’ history. Following in the wake of “Daddy” Rice, George Dixon blackened up and performed a comedy routine as ‘Zip Coon,’ a freed slave that thinks he’s smarter than is. The dancing jig and comedy routine became the staples of the blazingly new brand of entertainment…Minstrelsy. It evolved into more character types than the just ignorant coon and ignorant freed coon. There was the Jezebel - the ignorant temptress, the Buck - ignorant sexually overcharged black man, the Mammy - the ignorant old fat woman, and pickininnies - the ignorant black kids that get killed through their own stupidity as a joke. 

With the dawn of the film industry, the old minstrel characters and songs went from the stage to the screen. The first talkie, THE JAZZ SINGER, starred Al Jolson, doing his standard routine. The film concludes with the song, My Mammy. Minstrelsy was deemed important enough to break the sound barrier for the entire film industry. Al Jolson is cinema’s Chuck Yeager but in blackface. 

It may look like, this is the only the past. That this doesn’t matter as much as it did. It evolved with the times as everything does. The Blaxploitation era revamped it into something both empowering and reductive. Ralph Bakshi seized that moment and COONSKIN was the result. 

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Ralph Bakshi was an unstoppable and charging forward breaking down the public perception of what animated films are and can be. His peak was COONSKIN. This is the adventure of Southern (Oklahoma) Blacks going to Harlem and seeing the same ol’ problems exist there too. Racist cops, poverty, and crime ran amuck in 1970s New York City, in particular Harlem. Scatman Crothers guides us and a young Rico Tubbs through the film highlighting the ups and downs and downs of the African-American experience with a trio of crazy cartoon characters. Brother Bear - a big ol’ corn fed country bear, Brother Rabbit - a wiseguy jokester a la Bugs Bunny, and Preacher Fox - a sly and perverted minister with a fiery passion for the Lord. It isn’t just the story of Brer Rabbit, Fox, and Bear. It’s the story of Afican-Americans and how they’re still represented in American media. 

The story gets divided into 2 sections - Live Action and Cartoon. The live action begins with a powerful and vulgar sermon from Preacher Fox. 

“Do You See Me…I loves ya Lord…You Betta’ Well, Fuckin’ Well! See Me.” 

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Shortly after this, he meets up with his friend Barry White/Sampson. They are on a mission to save their friend Randy/Rico Tubbs. Along the way they kill a white cop. Scatman as Pappy assists in jail breaks (but never escapes himself). He spins a wild tale of southern boys going to NYC to pass the time. In a messy rescue, they get Randy and return back home. 

The film opens with a brief animated vignette of 2 Black men in Harlem. One announces directly to the viewer, “Fuck You.” Immediately tossing us into the unpleasant, shocking tone of the film The animated section goes into an extremely unflinching portrayal of the realities of African-Americans in then contemporary USA though it’s still very familiar. It follows Brother (Brer) Bear and Rabbit, and Preacher Fox along with vignettes of the various ways that African Americans are still oppressed. In one vignette, a single black mom goes through her personal struggles of raising a baby on her own. A former lover includes a rat that looks like a particular Disney rodent based on minstrel performers. This rat abandoned her. Bakshi shows the link of SONG OF THE SOUTH to COONSKIN, not only that but the first reveal of minstrel’s influence on American animation in particular Disney. Which is very rich, just start with the crows in DUMBO or the Sambo animated shorts. 

Disney is not the only target in Bakshi’s scope. The Looney Tunes are not in the clear either. Rabbit is a pureed distillation of what Bugs Bunny actually is, a minstrel trickster character. He’s not book smart but knows how to exploit people’s weaknesses and made them look stupid despite his own generalized ignorance. A racist cop Elmer Fudd-type shows up to kill that rabbit. Just like in the classic Looney Tunes, Rabbit turns the cop’s ideals (in this case racism and homophobia) against him. In a psychedelic freak-out, he gets drugged watching a live action stripper, has sex with a gay man, and gets blackened up as a fat mammy. Promptly getting shot by a squad of other cops.

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The Trio takes down a false prophet, Simple Savior, claiming to be helping his fellow blacks but is merely taking their money. His sermon consists of him dancing around nude, shaking his giant belly around. 

“The rent is white! The landlord is white! Your pain is white!” 

The grand finale…he shoots massive posters of John Wayne, Richard Nixon, and Elvis to shreds. Reinforcing his message that all God’s children are Black. All the congregation’s money is meant to start a revolution to kill whites but Savior is taking it all for himself (he has a semi-nude white woman and white accountant in his posse). It isn’t time for the revolution…yet. Rabbit and Bear kill Savior using Bugs Bunny tactics. They even take down the Mafia in a similar fashion. Rabbit incinerates the godfather’s only straight son so they plan to strike at Bear’s boxing match. Thinking far in advance, Rabbit creates a Tar Bunny, a fake bunny not a reference to 2 separate racial slurs. All the godfather’s family including godfather himself get stuck in the tar and go up in a massive explosion killing only them and presumably other evil whites.

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The other animated vignettes are a series featuring Miss America, a towering busty blonde who takes advantage of several black men. Lustily, she invites one over to give it another shot. As usual, it doesn’t end well for him. Later in the film, Scatman’s other character Old Man Bones is speaking the lyrics of “Ah’m A Nigger Man,” while Miss America patiently stands by. Getting to the verse, “If I stop dancing, and don’t let you blow me in the wind, because I refuse to come,” he defiantly barks at Miss America. She merely says, “Rape!” Then Old Man Bones gets lynched for stepping out of line. 

Bakshi uses so much minstrelsy imagery and references to its history that it feels like a 101 course in it. The most clear and shocking is the character design of Brother (Brer) Rabbit. He is extremely black, as in the darkest shade usable he could find. He is essentially the embodiment of blackface, but with the character of a Zip Coon. He’s a trickster, ignorant, and acts above it all. Even his suit is gawdy as can be. It’s a pimp suit but they are just modernized minstrel suits. Just like the rest of the characters, Rabbit is an extreme version of decades’ out existing stereotypes. No one is a good person. You see every classic minstrel character except pickininnies. Bear is a Buck. Fox is a Zip Coon. Bear’s girlfriend is a Jezebel. A couple of mammies even show up here and there. There’s even an old-fashioned slave owned by the Mafia. He’s missing a head but is strong as an ox and big as one. Black women are as always get shafted. Minstrelsy had next to nothing for women, the female characters were blackened up men in drag. COONSKIN has virtually no women in it, it’s the history of African-American oppression but African-American men’s oppression and ultimately overcoming it but only so much. It’s a happy ending but not by much. 

The film illustrates how the film industry has a long and largely ignored history of oppression. Part of the problem is Hollywood erasing its most embarrassing and willfully ignorant moments. It was mentioned before but animation has a rich and forgotten history of minstrelsy. We know it’s there but alot of it has been edited out so we don’t have to relive it. We should keep it as a reminder of our mistakes. Early animation used minstrel troupes in abundance, from gags to costumes (Mickey Mouse’s costume) to source material (Sambo shorts). Everyone was guilty of it but at that time it was so normalized that no one cared, including Blacks. It was just how it was. Minstrelsy goes beyond misrepresentation, it’s cinematic and cultural slavery. Slavery in the physical sense had ‘ended’ but Blacks were far from equal. Minstrelsy was the product of Yankee culture fantasizing about how fantastical Southern Black life was and worshiping Southern plantation culture. There’s a reason it boomed post-Civil War. It was the most popular form of entertainment in the USA, music and stage shows. Blacks were free physically but culturally participated in a very little capacity. They were seen only a certain way, allowed to be represented in a certain way. Just like slavery, allowed to participate in American society but only in the way whites wanted to see them. Sometimes they didn’t use actual Blacks but other whites as Blacks.

For a very limited time Blacks were allowed to tell their stories in the 1930s and 40s with Race films. However, they were given less money and less advertising but had nearly entirely Black production cast and crew included. Bakshi drew from the troupe of the standard Race film for COONSKIN. Southern Blacks go to the sinful big city - Harlem in most cases, and get corrupted by it. However, this time they are empowered to change society and challenge the white majority. Despite that Blacks are still victims, it’s the same old shit. The trio take down the evil white men and corrupted Blacks but there are others that fill that role.

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Once film had became a massive industry, the Minstrelsy traditions and practices were just carried over to that format. The institution of cultural slavery and limited societal participation was cemented with the JAZZ SINGER. It was not always meant to be malicious. It was family friendly entertainment. The end result and its aftereffects are devastating. It still exists but under the surface. Aspects of Tyler Perry’s work, the show Empire, reality TV stock crazy Black girl/guy, Hip Hop culture and music, Ghetto stereotypes, acting “White” or “Black,” the Cat in the Hat, Mickey Mouse, Blaxploitation films, the Black Guy dies first in a slasher flick, etc. All of these are Minstrelsy in various capacities. They are not directly meant to do damage but the origins all have Minstrel roots. COONSKIN uses Minstrelsy as a weapon. It turns the traditions and subverts them while embracing them. It brings all the uncomfortable things that most people don’t want to acknowledge is there to begin with or even aware of to the surface and takes it all the way to 11. It is offensive and unpleasant but the message is clear. African-Americans have been mistreated by American culture since they were allowed to be a part of American society. 

COONSKIN is unfairly and understandably forgotten. It’s just another Bakshi pervy cartoon to some but it’s much more than that. It’s a tome of minstrelsy history and the legacy of African-American oppression. This film needs to be seen. Everyone needs to see this and feel uncomfortable. 

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