Almost 40 years later, Bakshi's most controversial work remains a very difficult movie to watch, let alone talk about.
There’s a hallucinatory moment in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled where the main character, Damon Wayans’ Pierre Delacroix, imagines a money box coming to life, hopping and chattering about on its own. The money box is a vintage number from an especially horrible and not-so-distant chapter of American history. It looks like this.
Ralph Bakshi’s 1975 feature Coonskin, screening this Saturday at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of a very necessary retrospective on the filmmaker, is that moment stretched to 83 minutes. Coonskin is a playpen for hateful stereotypes and blackface caricatures to whizz around in, like terrible wind-up toys. They crash into each other, exchange gunfire, and generally make a pointedly unproductive mess. When it was first released, Coonskin was protested by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). When it screens at BAM this weekend, there won’t be smoke bombs or calls for boycotts. But that doesn’t mean that the film has grown more digestible with time.
Bakshi was born in 1938, to Russian Jewish parents, in Haifa, British Mandate of Palestine, but grew up in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Many of his films deal with race in America and urban living. Even his most successful movie, the officially X-rated R. Crumb adaptation Fritz the Cat has more to do with race relations and social movements than cartoon orgies.
At the intersection of Blaxploitation and Uncle Remus, Coonskin opens in the South and in live action. Two men, Barry White’s Sampson and Charles Gordone’s Preacherman, are preparing to bust a friend out of prison. The friend, played by Miami Vice’s Philip Michael Thomas, waits for his getaway car sitting against the prison wall with a fellow inmate, played by Scatman Crothers. Posted up and with time to kill, Crothers’ character tells a story about a similar crew who left a bloody shootout in parts nearby for the African-American Mecca of Harlem, allegedly a place of black freedom and excellence. Instead, Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear, and Preacher Fox find conniving preachers using the promise (but not fulfillment) of revolutionary politics to extort the flock, corrupt cops who kill and steal with impunity, and grotesque subterranean mafia dons. In place of peace and freewheeling living, there are the shackles of drug addiction and poverty. The renaissance suggested with the mere mention of the word Harlem isn’t here, no. The American Dream walks the streets naked, personified as a giant freckled white woman with long blonde hair, massive breasts, and a gun in her vagina. In a scene that plays like a less nuanced version Amiri Baraka's Dutchman, she seduces a black revolutionary with the promise of sex, only to leave him dead on the pavement.
If this paraphrasable content sounds like social commentary, remember that the characters still look and sound like the Ku Klux Klan’s version of the Sunday funnies. (The film also contains caricatures of gay men, transgender people, Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, and Jews, but as the title suggests, they figure far less prominently.) The trio is first introduced standing against the concentric orange-red circles of the Looney Toons logo. Brother Rabbit’s illustrated to be the color of burnt cork. His eyes are yellow like jaundice, and his lips the approximate shape and shade of red of a thick cartoon slice of beefsteak tomato. How do you stomach any kind of criticism embedded in the narrative with this band of protagonists? Can you hear any message if the messenger wears blackface?
Is it a test? Is it spite? Is it that because white Americans won’t listen to the words of real live people of color, so we’ll get them to pay attention with these awful blackface caricatures, characters their culture created? That assumes that the film was meant for white viewers, something Bakshi has said and then also denied. Can the film ever move beyond the context of a white director animating black characters in this way?
As a white person, to what degree can I even engage with this text? I think it’s important that I mention that the scene that resonated most for me involved putting down affluent whites marveling at the existence of black people in what is traditionally a white and upper-class space. In the scene, a well-dressed white man and woman talk with Preacher Fox and Brother Bear’s girlfriend Pearl at a fancy dinner party. “We’ve always talked about having black people in the club,” exclaims the white woman. “Now that you’re really here, it’s just incredible, isn’t it?!” These whites aren’t animated to be gross the way, say, a pair of white redneck cops from an earlier scene are. These whites aren't animated but they're as caricatured as any cartoon. Bakshi’s decision to not animate them renders their entire real life existence a joke, and it’s brilliant.
The flip side to this line of thinking is that the whites appear un-animated because they aren’t depicted as stereotypes by American society at large in the way that black men, women, and children have. According to this logic, the film has to depict Bear, Rabbit, and Fox as blackface cartoons. But that would suggest that to be rendered as a cartoon is inherently inhumane. That’s not the case; in a Bakshi movie, live action isn’t privileged over animation. Humanity can be found in both mediums of expression.
Still, there’s no grand unifying moment of catharsis to pay you back for time spent among Bakshi’s animated stereotypes. His disinterest in a traditional narrative that moves smoothly from beat to beat doesn’t allow for this kind of productive release. Instead, there are only small moments of relief. Paradoxically, these moments create ruptures within the text, are stand-alone elements that could be removed entirely without altering the A-to-B nature of plot.
For instance, the story of Brother Rabbit’s bloody rise to power halts completely for a black woman speaking about abandonment and loneliness. The animation in this scene pays homage to the work of Bakshi’s favorite cartoonist, George Herriman, who was biracial but spent his entire life passing as white. Her monologue begins, “I know I ain’t pretty but that’s not why my man left.” Her voice is soft with a tincture of tired defeat. Her baby cries as she speaks, telling the story of Malcolm the cockroach. Malcolm is drawn in the style of Herriman’s Krazy Kat comics, and appears scratched into the black background of the shot like etchings in slate. She sits in the foreground, legs long, rocking her baby beside an unmade bed. The color of the foreground moves from the natural coloring of her character and the objects around her—her pink stockings; her red heels and earrings and dress; the blue chair and bed frame; the white sheets and pillows; the black baby in her thin black arms—to flat washes of blue and pink. She and the baby turn blue, while the bed and chair turn pink.
The color toggles back and forth as she talks, rendering the scene more abstract as her story about her former lover unfolds. The tension between the humanity of her words and the way the film renders her even less than human (already she’s gone from black woman to black duck [my best guess as to what animal she is; it’s not clear and never confirmed] to pure color) is what powers this film. This tension between humanity and caricature is what makes the film so damn uncomfortable.
Much later in Coonskin, Preacherman takes the hand of a little black boy. They walk together away from the camera in live action. Very much alive, in fact. It’s sweet, almost a surprise of an ending. But it isn’t a plot twist that casts the ugliness and pain of all that’s come before it in a new light. What’s ugly remains ugly. The mess sits inside your head, unreconciled and unapologetic. It cannot be cleaned up. Like history, you have to live with it.
The Brooklyn Academy of Music's Cool Worlds: The Animation of Ralph Bakshi begins today and ends on May 20th. For tickets and times, check BAM's website.
Ross Scarano is a deputy editor at Complex. He tweets here.