Originally published on September 17, 2013 at 6:00 am
1975 saw the release of Jaws, Barry Lyndon, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Dog Day Afternoon. It also saw the release of Ralph Bakshi’s Coonskin.
Before I talk about COONSKIN, let me indulge in a bit of reminiscing. It won’t take long and I promise it has a point. Every summer my parents, myself and my sister would cram ourselves into the ’73 Grand Am (the first year it was released, and had a squishy front nose), and take off on a cross country vacation. I do not remember the year specifically, but we were down South-Georgia, I believe-and the KKK was having some type of parade, or demonstration. Whatever it was, they were blocking traffic and going car to car handing out pamphlets. As one robed figure approached our car, I remember my Dad pulling his service revolver out of his shoulder holster and laying it in his lap. As the Klansmen came to the driver’s side window, my dad rolled it down a bit and when the pamphlet was being slipped through, my Dad just pointed to the gun in his lap, and we were troubled no further.
Flash forward about 20 years, and I’m on a greyhound bus going through Texas in the middle of the night. I’m dozing a bit and come out of it due to the growing noise around me. I look out the window I’d been resting my head against and saw a burning cross in the middle of a field. I am perhaps one of only two three white people in a full bus. The tension is thick, and I can feel the hate burning though me. I pretend to go back to sleep, though I never did, and I hid my shaking hands underneath the jacket I carried.
I hadn’t thought of either of these incidents in years. Had I not watched Coonskin, I don’t know if I would have thought about them again. I don’t know, they were both pretty tense moments, okay scary moments, that I’d just as soon not relive. Yet I did. Coonskin starts with a jailbreak as Scatman Crothers and a very young Philip Michael Thomas both hug the side of the prison while waiting for their getaway ride. While waiting, Scatman starts to tell the story of Brother Bear, voiced by Barry White; Brother Rabbit, voiced by Philip Michael Thomas, and Preacher Fox, given life by Charles Gordone. Al Lewis, Grandpa from The Munsters also makes an appearance as the Italian Godfather who lives in the subway with four incestuous gay sons and one straight son. If you’re familiar with the stories of Uncle Remus, then you know the basic plot of Coonskin. Besides, the story was just Bakshi’s way of imparting his thoughts on race, sexuality, and a host of other issues from the day. I’ll admit, after watching this, I still don’t know what to think. Is it a great movie? No. Is it even a good movie? No. I think it’s all over the place, and using stereotypes to point out the racism doesn’t work. I’m not even sure it’s an important movie anymore, unless you’re a Bakshi fan (which I am).
It is very much a product of its time, and for that alone it’s worth watching. I was so torn by this movie I didn’t even know if I would be able to write about it. Then I saw the abject racism on twitter about the newly crowned Miss America being East Indian, and the hate spilling forth about her. On the heels of Coonskin, and the two memories it brought up makes me realize we, as a country have a long way to go.