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April 20, 2012

Movies You Missed 35: Coonskin, aka Street Fight

Coonskin_(1975)This week in movies you missed: a film about race in America from the great animator Ralph Bakshi that, according to the warning label on an early VHS release, "offends everybody."

What You Missed

We open with a live-action sequence: In a rural prison, Randy (Philip Michael Thomas) and Pappy (Scatman Crothers) wait for Randy's two friends, played by Barry White and Charles Gordone, to come bust them out. To while away the time, Pappy tells a story of three outlaws who he says resemble Randy and his friends: Brother Fox, Brother Bear and Brother Rabbit, who left the South to embark on a series of violent adventures in Harlem.

Bakshi's animation takes over as we watch the exploits of the three brothers (voiced by Thomas, Gordone and White), which include bringing down a corrupt preacher, a cop on the take and, in the climactic sequence, the Mafia.

The three are depicted as African American heroes freeing their community from leeches and exploiters. Still, because of the film's imagery — which draws on racist and ethnic stereotypes, among others — it was met with protests and charges of racism on its theatrical release.

Why You Missed It

That original release happened in 1975. Coonskin did not last long in theaters (read this well-researched Wikipedia page for more history), but later had a VHS release under the less objectionable title Street Fight. This is the first DVD release.

Should You Keep Missing It?

When I read that this film reputedly offends everybody, I immediately wanted to see it. I wasn't disappointed — and I was blown away by the sheer out-thereness of Bakshi's animation and imagination. As far as describing it, the best I can do is to say that it reminded me of certain surreal sequences in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (which also repurposes Br'er Rabbit folklore in an urban context) combined with Blaxploitation flicks and sent on an acid trip.

I'm not surprised to hear that Quentin Tarantino loves it. Bakshi has said that Spike Lee is a fan, too.

Of course, none of that changes the fact of its outrageousness, or proves it isn't racist. The film teems with grotesque caricatures of black people, fat people, buxom blondes (such as the iconic "Miss America," who flirts with black men and then cries rape), gay men, Irishmen and Italians (Bakshi was offended by the way Mafia dons became sympathetic heroes in The Godfather, so he went in the opposite direction).

The movie is offensive and trying to be, as satires often are: No one in Bakshi's animated world is normal. But it also has moments of unexpected poetry. The lurid animated figures appear against live-action New York nightscapes, some of them footage from much earlier in the century, which gives the movie a timeless, folkloric dimension even as it seems like something that should be playing a grindhouse theater in Watergate-era Times Square. It's a work of art, but also very much of its time.

In 2008, Latoya Peterson wrote on the blog Racialicious that "Coonskin has officially hit cult status, despite not being released on DVD." (The film's characters were showing up on T-shirts.) Peterson went on to outline some of the influences on the film and to pose again the question of racism, but left it for her readers to consider.

Interviews like this one make clear that Bakshi intended the film to be a dissection of American racism, not an example of it ... but how successful was he? If you're interested, now you can see for yourself.

Verdict: Canonical for connoisseurs of the controversial. And definitive proof, if anyone needs it, that not all animated films are for children.

Other New DVD Releases You May Have Missed

  • The Divide (postapocalyptic survivors trapped in the basement of an apartment building!)
  • The Flaw (documentary about the U.S. credit bubble)
  • Farmageddon (raw-milk advocacy documentary)
  • Frozen Planet (Discovery Channel doc with penguins aplenty)
  • Girl Fight (Anne Heche in a high school bullying drama)
  • Great Expectations (2012) (a new version from director Mike Newell)
  • A Heavenly Vintage (An angel guides a wine maker in the latest from Niki Caro, who made Whale Rider.)
  • Paul Goodman Changed My Life (documentary about the popular midcentury writer who helped found Gestalt therapy)
  • Shame
  • "Treme," season 2

Each week in "Movies You Missed," I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)

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