Originally released to movie theaters as Coonskin in August 1975, Ralph Bakshi’s controversial animated feature (later renamed “Street Fight” for the video rental market) was duplicitously shopped to Paramount Studios as an updated take on the 1946 Disney movie Song of the South. But set in the more contemporary slums of Harlem, New York.
For those who’ve never seen the questionable Disney classic that inspired Bakshi’s take, Song of the South was a sweetly animated slice of cinematic Americana that offered kids of all ages a romanticized glimpse into dirt-poor life on a Post-Emancipation slave plantation. Centered in its narrative is an obliging old former slave called “Uncle Remus,” who sits on the porch of his dilapidated former slave quarters and tells rosy-cheeked white ‘chillun’ stories about a clever critter by the name of Br’er Rabbit.
The most troublesome of those shared is the double entendre-ish folk tale of the Tar-Baby.
Today, Song of the South is mostly known as the film that Disney keeps locked in the studio vault, where it’s been quietly kept now for nearly four decades. Its last theatrical run was back in 1986 and the film has never been made commercially available in the US, much to the chagrin of fans who fondly miss the “harmless” racial caricatures of that bygone era.
The R-rated Coonskin was released to theaters in 1974, during the height of low budget blaxploitation cinema. Bakshi had managed to con investors into believing that he was producing a cinematic cash cow based on the old Disney favorite. Perhaps justifiably, his investors were all bamboozled.
This was, of course, the same Ralph Bakshi who in 1972 produced the animated feature film Fritz the Cat, based on cartoonist R. Crumb’s adults only comix. With it’s rushed completion, Bakshi brought into existence the cinematic world’s first full-length X-Rated cartoon.
In stark contrast to the bright, colorful palette and G-rated “zippty doo dah” sentimentality of the Disney film, Coonskin was a gritty, vulgar and disturbingly violent film. Its portrayals of African-Americans were so overtly offensive that, upon its initial showing at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the young civil rights activist Al Sharpton organized a protest that would engulf the museum. The fiery demonstration was then led to the front door of Paramount Pictures in New York, resulting in the film being yanked from theaters only days after release.
Coonskin’s quickie synopsis: An elder convict (Scatman Crothers) and a young buddy are in the midst of a jailbreak somewhere in Oklahoma. While awaiting their getaway car, he tells his young accomplice (Philip Michael Thomas) the story of three furry friends: Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear and Preacher Fox, who move to Harlem in order to try beating the mob, crooked cops, angry revolutionaries and greedy preachers at their own wicked games.
As I did upon that original viewing, I still think that the casting of baritone crooner Barry White as the character Samson the Bear, and pretty boy Philip Michael Thomas (Miami Vice) as Rabbit were nicely matched.
Scatman Crothers, cast as the live-action Pappy as well as other animated characters in the film, was also a smart choice. From 1974 to 1976, Crothers' gruff and expressive voice breathed life into Saturday morning’s beloved kung-fu fightin’ canine Hong Kong Phooey.
But when Crothers belts out of the Bakshi penned tune “Ah’m a Nigger Man” during the opening credits of Coonskin, it’s a stark and jarring reminder of the inherent hazards of white dudes who, having had arm’s length or even intimate experience with members a different racial group, consider themselves fit to offer sharp social commentary, as if they were actually wizened insiders.
Despite Bakshi’s naïveté, passed off as good intention, Coonskin is promptly undermined by the breast-fed tradition of historic racism in America. Every black character is a deformed, animalistic he or she-beast, grossly exaggerating the once standard depictions of black folks in American comic strips and cartoons as ugly, shiny-eyed “coons” (hence the title Coonskin).
But it’s not only the image of African-Americans that Bakshi seeks to blight with such gross renderings. He goes after Italians and “the gays,” too.
For reasons that were known only to Bakshi, he held deep resentment of the success of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). So he features in Coonskin a criminal godfather of his own creation: a bloated, bloodthirsty warthog of a man voiced by an uncredited Al 'Grandpa Munster’ Lewis (The Munsters). The Italian mob boss' wife is rendered as an almost equally bloated, pampering hag, and his sons as incestuous (!), cross-dressing…queers.
By stark contrast, Aryan poster child types like Marigold (the teenage daughter of the hillbilly lawman pursuing Rabbit and his gang) and the patriotically attired Ms. America, while appearing as not much more than one-dimensional eye candy, are rendered appealingly as buxom, blonde & blue-eyed bombshells. But Ms. America also has a penchant for luring black dudes and then violently murdering them.
It doesn’t require much in the way of any Freudian analysis to interpret any deeper meanings.
If Bakshi accomplished much of anything with Coonskin (aka Street Fight)––well, other than actually getting such a film made––it was successfully blurring the lines between racism, sexism and, hell, even atheism, while managing to also come off as ethnocentric, homophobic and misogynistic, too!
Maybe to Bakshi at the time, producing an animated film with the potential to offend as many people as possible — but mostly at the expense of African-Americans––seemed like an edgy and yet deeply artistic endeavor, somehow.
Paco Taylor is a writer from Chicago. He loves old history books, Japanese giant monster movies, hip-hop, anime, comics, Kit Kats, and kung fu flicks.