Counterculture cartoon packs a punch, so don't watch it with your
grandmother, but do watch it
February 18, 2010
by G.H. Lewmer
Over the past thirty years animation has enjoyed a welcomed
renaissance within film culture. From Pixar to Studio Ghibli, the
number of diverse, artistic-driven animation films have risen
dramatically because the perception that drove the "animation is just
for kids" label has thankfully disappeared.
However, there was a time 40 years ago when Disney was the only
cartoon game in town until one man successfully challenged the Mouse
that Roared with a Cat that attacked. That man is Ralph Bakshi.
Remembered primarily for the counter-culture classics Fritz The Cat
and Heavy Traffic (a film banned by the Alberta Censorship Board),
Bakshi's great unknown masterpiece, Coonskin, is a no-holds barred
urban folk-tale inspired by the writings of novelist Chester Hines
and 1970's graffiti culture. Produced by Albert Ruddy (The
Godfather), Coonskin tells the story of Brothers Rabbit, Bear and Fox
as they escape their poverty-stricken southern roots and soon rise to
the top of the Organized Crime ladder in Harlem.
Told in episodic fashion, mixing animation, live-action and still
photography within an eye-popping orgy of sex, violence and politics,
Coonskin is a one-of-a-kind masterpiece that would incite audience
riots if shown in theaters today. Coming from Palestinian heritage,
Bakshi intended the film to be anti-idiot and used vulgar cartooning
and stereotypical archetypes to explore cultural, political and
social issues within the extremely popular (and successful) gangster
friendly genre. Bakshi incorporated animated characters over still
and live-action imagery, giving the film a psychedelic dream-like
imagery that effectively counters the shocking thematic concerns presented.
Bakshi was labeled as "that cat that made those dirty Disney flicks!"
after the success of Fritz and Traffic, and in many ways Coonskin is
Bakshi giving the finger to everything that is proper and correct in
society. A word of warning: Coonskin packs quite a punch. It's one
of the most successful films of the first counterculture era to deal
with power, politics and race issues. The film doesn't succumb to the
bleeding-heart liberalism or gritty realism that is the tried and
true formula when Hollywood attempts anything it feels is "important
with meaning." Coonskin proudly wears it's vulgarity on its' sleeve;
a juke-joint film possessed with a viper-energy containing a seedy
core that wants to mess with your mind and break your heart. It's
uncompromising and unrepentant like all great art should be.
Sadly, Ralph Bakshi is virtually forgotten today; an unrecognized
master whose work helped shift and mould creative culture of the past
thirty years. Coonskin tells a truth that few films will ever have
the guts (or talent) to tell.