Friday, February 22, 2013


The 1970s animator Ralph Bakshi used broadly drawn cartoon stereotypes of racism, poverty, and oppression to attack these failings in America.  His animation opted for crude rawness over artistry.  The double-edged nature of his method appeals to the same forces it attacks.  This is evident in his 1975 film Coonskin, which transports the Brer Rabbit stories of Disney’s Song of the South (and of African American slave stories appropriated by Joel Chandler Harris) to Harlem.  Bakshi more than Disney sees the subversive nature of the Brer Rabbit stories as allegories of black rebellion against white authority.  In Coonskin the rabbit, bear, and fox in different ways attack religion, the mob, and corrupt police as forces of black oppression.  Bakshi understands that these institutions often work in collusion with the white power structure, a collusion that he illustrates through a number of episodes.  A black preacher named the Simple Savior preys on believers to collect money, working under the direction of blonde white women.  Madigan, a homophobic New York policeman charges protection money to black business owners.  The godfather of the mafia claims to care about the suffering of blacks but collects protection money anyway.  And so on.  In Coonskin the rabbit and his friends take over Harlem and defeat these oppressive forces.  The message is one of black power.

Throughout the film Bakshi portrays crude stereotypes—thick lipped black women with enormous buttocks and breasts, jiving black hipsters, and so on.  The effect is of a confused Black Nationalist arts performance commingled with a minstrel show.  The intent is to show how thoroughly infiltrated our society is with racist images and to demonstrate how they oppress and disfigure the individuals and groups they represent.  Perhaps also the intent is to entertain an audience that is probably mostly white, as were Bakshi and (I am guessing) his animators and crew. One could argue that images Bakshi uses to celebrate and quote from black culture also ridicule it (a similar argument may be levelled at Django Unchained—2012).  The numerous images of huge breasts, naked women, and the various allusions to sex and female sexuality may exploit and comment on our nation’s obsession with sexuality, yet they’re also prurient.  And the ridicule of homosexuals throughout the film (four of the Godfather’s five sons are cross-dressing gays) hardly advances the cause of gender preference equality.

Why is this a Southern film?  Its main characters come from well-known Southern tales.  The film begins in the South and ends there.  The whole film is framed as a series of tales told by an older black convict to a younger one as they crouch against the outer wall of a Southern penitentiary, waiting to elude the white guards and escape.  Yet the society excoriated in the film is not specifically Southern—it’s American.

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