74 - Coonskin (1975)
Coonskin is a movie steeped in controversy; if not already evident by its name, this is a film that revels in its contentious nature. Written and directed by divisive animation legend Ralph Bakshi, Coonskin is an attempt to examine race relations in America through a satirical animated platform. While it’s successful in it’s attempts to draw attention to and criticize many aspects of black and white culture, the points made are coming from an ungenuine source; leaving the viewer confused and wondering why it was made at all.
As with most of Bakshi’s R rated films, Coonskin leaps freely from narrative to social commentary to drug-induced animated interludes to create something much more than the sum of its parts. Bakshi is dealing with very heavy issues throughout in this film, many of which will make viewers extremely uncomfortable.
This film was pulled from theaters by its original distributor before it even began its inaugural theatrical run. CORE (Congress of Racial Equality) was a group led by Al Sharpton at the time of this movies release and it was actively protesting the promotion and distribution of this film. Despite having never seen the movie, they claimed the depiction of black characters as being racist and protested it’s release through questionable means. Coonskin premiered at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City to a large protest from CORE and at subsequent screenings they would throw smoke bombs into crowded movie theaters to disrupt the screenings and cause panic.
While CORE had valid points to make, their methods were not exactly non-violent. The ACLU didn’t like the film but they held the stance that under free speech enshrined in first amendment there was nothing that should be done to impede the release of the movie. Under constant controversy and pressure, the original distributor (Paramount) quickly sold the rights to a smaller company and removed themselves from the project altogether. The film was given a limited release and fell into obscurity soon after - Coonskin was all but forgotten.
Years later other distributors would attempt to release the film and even change the name (eventually to Bustin’ Out and later to Street Fight) in an attempt to shed the controversy of the original release. Despite praise from critics, the film was basically lost until the eventual DVD was released in the early 2000’s - giving audiences a fresh look at a film that was deemed too controversial upon its original release.
The movie itself is a mixed bag, if you’ve seen Fritz The Cat you know what to expect. There are interesting moments and lots of bizarre elements contained within a very simple and loose narrative. It’s more of an art piece than a film but it’s certainly watchable. Coonskin is something I would recommend for its bold attitude, poignant moments, and historical significance. If you’re looking for a traditional three act movie you won’t find much enjoyment, if you’re in search of something different and offensive Coonskin is worth a watch.
Race relations have always been a delicate topic in modern American culture and Coonskin aims to call attention to the myriad of problems we are faced with. The political and cultural points are fine, but they are coming from a source that has no authority to speak to them. Bakshi is a white man, Coonskin is an examination of black culture and issues, something he is not familiar with on a first-hand basis. Just as a white American couldn’t fully understand the life of a Chinese factory worker, Bakshi is making points that aren’t his to make. It’s a real “thanks but no thanks” scenario that aims to help but only hurts as he is speaking for an unwilling minority. Instead of making a movie that is supposed to criticize the existence of minstrel shows and racial inequality, Bakshi has inadvertently made a minstrel show of his own.