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The tagline of Coonskin is "Warning: This film offends everybody, " but this isn't true. It won't offend people who understand satire.
of Coonskin is film, but . .
The main target of Coonskin's satire is Disney's 1946 film Song of the South. Ralph Bakski, Coonskin's director, thought that Song of the South inaccurately portrayed the history of the South and was ultimately racist in its depictions.
He wasn't alone. Song of the South was heavily criticized upon release and to date remains one of few Disney films which has never been released on physical media, at least in the USA.
. of the of , in the .
was also heavily criticised upon release and , like Song of the South, was accused of being racist. But Coonskin isn't racist. It's satire.
Coonskin and the of .
Like all satire, Coonskin exists on two levels: text and subtext. The text being what we see and hear, the subtext being the meaning, i.e., the criticism.
The subtext of Coonskin is: American media is racist in how it depicts black Americans.
The text of Coonskin is: racist depictions of black Americans.
Yeah, that's gonna cause issues for people who can't look beneath the surface and see what's really going on.
And all this is well and good, but is the movie any good?
Well, yes, as long as you don't mind the fact that the movie spends a lot of time world-building at the expense of story-telling. There are, for example, numerous vignettes of life in Harlem -- my favorite is the story a woman tells about a cockroach. This story and others like it are lovely and interesting and funny, but do nothing to advance the plot.
And the plot itself is simplicity itself: Brother Rabbit (Phillip Michael Thomas), Brother Bear (Berry White), and Preacher Fox (Charles Gordone) go to Harlem and work their way up the crime ladder. Along the way they face off against a revolutionary minister who is fleecing the community, a racist police department, and the mafia.
Beautifully animated, always interesting, and with a fantastic score, Coonskin is a challenging film to be sure, but it is a challenge worth facing.
Coonskin is a film that is incredibly misunderstood. Even people who have never heard of or seen the film get a mental image of some racist propaganda at the mention of the title (not so much in Australia where I am from because “coon” is not a very well known term – it’s actually a brand of cheese). And looking at images from the film, or watching excerpts of the film also often give the wrong impression. But when it all comes down to it, Coonskin is not at all a racist film. In fact, it’s probably the opposite. It is about as satirical as they come. The black characters may be caricatures and often stereotypes, but look closer and you’ll find that every character in the film, black or white, is a stereotype. Nothing is meant to be taken literally in that sense.
Take away all the important messages and themes running through the film, and you still would probably struggle to prove it’s a racist film. The black protagonists are so likable that there is no mistake as to who the heroes of the story are. It’s not a case of laughing at them, but with them. Deeper, though, it’s plainly obvious that Ralph Bakshi set out to say something about American society and about African-Americans. It’s most obvious in the scenes of America personified by a beautiful woman screwing over a helpless black man.
Leaving behind all this talk of racism, satire and deep political messages, Coonskin is mostly a great film because it’s just so entertaining. The characters are well-defined and the action is fast and colourful. A film well worth watching for fans of animation in particular.
Reviewed by Angel