Film: White men can't joke

...or at least that's what a black pressure group said about Coonskin. The cartoon's director begs to differ.

In 1975, a group called the Congress Of Racial Equality (Core) slung smoke bombs into a cinema on Broadway. Curiously, Core was not an anarchic terrorist group but a reputable black middle-class body and the very film they were opposing was an animated cartoon whose three protagonists were a wily black rabbit, a lumbering brown bear and an eccentric fox. Charles Cook, a principle member of Core, had not actually watched the film himself, but dourly pronounced that Coonskin, the film in question, "perpetuates racial disrespect. The black community does not need people like Bakshi who want to make clowns out of us". Other members of the group described Coonskin as "mental pollution" and "very insulting".

These sour comments were directed at the mischievously iconoclastic animator Ralph Bakshi, also responsible for Fritz The Cat, the very first animated cartoon with an "X" certificate. Today, Bakshi is convinced Core used the film "as a tremendous way to get publicity", adding: "Black people who went to see the film loved it."

Set predominantly in Harlem, Coonskin is Bakshi's hilarious allegorical interpretation of the black American folk story of Br'er Rabbit, in the style of such films as Shaft and Superfly. Deftly combining animation with filmed footage, among its cast are Barry White and a young Phillip Michael Thomas, who was Don Johnson's partner in Miami Vice. What outraged members of Core were the animated depictions of black men and women as prostitutes, pimps, criminals and other racial stereotypes, yet the white characters, too, were distorted into burlesques by Bakshi.

By its very nature, the animated cartoon simplifies while exaggerating and accentuating its subjects' physical and mental characteristics. Bakshi concedes that he is indeed guilty of stereotyping the cast. "You have to, that's part of the joy of cartooning, that's part of the outrageousness of it. Stereotypes are symbols. Picasso would have done the same stereotypes."

But Bakshi's barbed satirical anger is reserved for his portraits of the white and black oppressors of black Americans, whether they are the repulsive, corrupt Irish policeman, members of the Mafia, or the fraudulent black evangelist. "Just because you're black, it doesn't mean that you're perfect, just as if you're white it doesn't mean you're perfect." It is the cunning rabbit, who was based on the figure of Malcolm X, with the support of the fox and the bear, who frees Harlem from its exploiters. Today, Bakshi is keen to stress that, "the picture is about what is right and what is wrong".

Throughout the fable, he employs the symbolic figure of Miss America to emphatically imply that white American politicians have proposed only empty promises to the black American population. In a sultry voice, she flirts with black male cartoons but destroys them before any sexual intimacy is made. When one black man is unmoved by her seductive teasing, she screams "rape!" and he is promptly hanged.

Black Americans were not united in their castigation of Coonskin, but was part of Core's vilification of the film due to Bakshi being white? "Oh, absolutely, no question about it. They were the most racist people I ever saw in my life." The animator was raised in a multi-racial district of Brooklyn called Brownsville where "nobody was a stranger", and he insists he was qualified to write about black culture: "Maybe I'm an idiot but basically, what's the problem? I'm living on a planet called Earth, I'm living in a city called New York. I mean, are black people so out of my understanding because they're black? I'm not from Mars!" He adds, "I wrote what I did know about", and the dialogue and characterisations seem palpably authentic although he regrets allowing the producer, Albert Ruddy, who produced The Godfather, to change the film's original name, Coonskin No More, to its shorter, more ambiguous title.

Bakshi also hired 10 black animators, some of whom had painted murals in Watts, one of the poor black districts of Los Angeles. In 1975 Charles Cordone, the black playwright who was the voice of the fox, stated: "I know Bakshi and he would never be interested in doing anything racist. He is making a statement about society as it is." He added that if Core "didn't have something to bitch about they would be out of business". Despite this, the controversy that Core generated did intimidate Paramount Pictures who refused to distribute the film, although another distributor was quickly found.

Because Walt Disney dominated the world of animated cartoons, the medium became intimately tied to the innocence of childhood. Subsequently, Bakshi's adult cartoons were perceived as abusers of this innocence. Today, he admits: "That's where most of the anger came from. How dare I take Disney's medium and do this with it. `How does Walt feel about it?' I couldn't give a fuck less how Walt would feel about it. They kept asking me that." He adds, both angered and amused: "How did he feel when he was making his Donald Duck pictures and I was running around Brooklyn trying to get a pair of shoes?"

In Fritz The Cat, Bakshi mocked Walt Disney's safe middle-class world by including the figures of Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse and Goofy, and he also used the rabbit in Coonskin to do the same. Disney's The Song Of The South was also an interpretation of the Br'er Rabbit fable but, according to Bakshi, it was an authentic "racist white movie". He adds, "If Disney was slick, I was trying to make it a ghetto film", and this prompted him to use more lurid colours. These contrasted with the almost monochromatic filmed footage of Harlem, its empty streets full of slushy, dirty snow, and images of a cold moon that, despite the film's humour, evoked an underlying sense of sadness.

Over two decades, the controversy surrounding Coonskin has weakened dramatically but, ultimately, Core were a black middle-class group unduly embarrassed by the antics of the poorer members of their race. It was Bakshi's desire to expose the causes of why blacks were forced into prostitution and criminality, and today he states: "A lot of black people call me and say the film's unbelievable." Spike Lee, too, has praised the film. "I heard it was his favourite film," says Bakshi.

However, without the slurs Core instigated, Bakshi concedes he would have directed more controversial films and not made The Lord of The Rings. Today, he is a painter but is still adamant that, "Cartooning started to poke fun and expose the evils and wrongs of man. It wasn't like Disney did it, that was a bastardisation of cartooning, that's illustration. The art of cartooning was to attack. That was the only reason it came about and when you attack with cartooning, there isn't a better medium".

`Coonskin' is released on video by the Xenon Entertainment Group

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