The mission of The Department of Afro-American Research Arts and Culture to identify the global significance of the creative contributions pioneered by an international diaspora of Blackness
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Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Coonskin (1974)

"Coonskin" (1974) is a live-action animated film written and directed by Ralph Bakshi, starring Scatman Crothers, Philip Michael Thomas, Barry White, and Charles Gordone. The film is a satire of blaxploitation films from the 1970s and Disney's "Song of the South" (1946). To fully understand the conception of the film's characters, one must be familiar with Uncle Remus and the tales of Br'er Rabbit. You don't necessarily have to know the stories of Br'er Rabbit, just as long as you see the connection between the characters, the controversy of "Song of the South," Uncle Remus, and the popularity of the blaxploitation era.

Philip Michael Thomas is Brother Rabbit (a play on Br'er Rabbit), Barry White is Brother Bear (a play on Br'er Bear), and Charle Gordone is Preacher Fox (a play on Br'er Fox). Gordone was the first African American to win the annual Pulitzer Prize for Drama for his 1969 play "No Place to Be Somebody." In addition, Scatman Crothers voices the character of Old Man Bone, a satire of Uncle Remus. Bakshi was also responsible for two other controversial films, which are "Fritz the Cat" (1972) and "Heavy Traffic" (1973). Bakshi teamed up with Albert S. Ruddy, the producer for "The Godfather," to get "Coonskin" into production. The film spoofs the stereotypes of black people in Hollywood, including portrayals of other ethnic groups that some may find offensive and controversial. 

On the surface, many will find "Coonskin" offensive and racist. However, the fascinating thing about art is regardless of the artist's intentions, people will and are allowed to have their perspectives. Bakshi considers this film a tribute to the black man's struggle and fights for equal rights. There are several interviews and documents on Bakshi's perspective of America and the misfortunes of African-Americans. If you have watched "Fritz the Cat" or "Heavy Traffic," then "Coonskin" may make more sense to you. Unfortunately, many conceptions are abstract, and the spoof on "Song of the South" makes the film challenging to follow if you can't catch the references. Paramount Pictures was the original distributor for the film. However, after pressure from the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), Paramount decided not to move forward with the release, and Bryanston Distributing Company picked up the rights to the film. 

The animation and live-action in the film are fantastic. The cinematography is captivating, and plenty of shocking moments will have you wondering. However, the most disappointing thing about this film is that the soundtrack was never released! The funky soundtrack adds to the gritty setting of New York City's underground world. And the incredible intro song performed by Scatman Crother is a masterpiece. It's so riveting and brilliant that it warns you of what you're about to see. The movie has many layers, and some may need help understanding what the film is trying to convey. There are lots of symbolism that would require some context as well.

This movie isn't for the easily offended or those uncomfortable with the imagery portrayed of black people. But if you are fans of Philip Michael Thomas, Scatman Crothers, and Barry White, you'll see them outside their regular performances. If you're curious about the brilliance of Charles Gordone as a playwriter and actor, then open your mind. There is much to research about this movie and its many elements. I can't say that I recommend this film without some discretion in its contents, but I'm a fan of abstract thought and controversy through art.

Director: Ralph Bakshi
Writer: Ralph Bakshi

Starring Barry White, Scatman Crothers, Charles Gordone, Philip Michael Thomas, Jesse Welles, Jim Moore, Buddy Douglas, Danny Rees

Pappy (Scatman Crothers) and Randy (Philip Michael Thomas) are two convicts attempting to escape from the county jail. Preacherman (Charles Gordone) and Sampson (Barry White) are their getaway drivers, but on the way to pick them up, police stop them at a roadblock, where a shootout ensues. While waiting for the getaway car, Pappy tells the tales of Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear, and Preacher Fox's rise in the Harlem underground world where sex, drugs, violence, racism, and gangsters all take over the inner city nightlife.

Available on Blu-ray (Region B), but it's out of print. However, the film is available on multiple streaming services.