For many, Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin is still a lost picture. Upon its release in 1975, members of the Congress of Racial Equality, led by Al Sharpton and Elaine Parker, pressured Paramount Pictures to cancel the film's release, despite the fact that the majority of the group's members had not seen it. After a screening at the Museum of Modern Art that was crashed by a handful of CORE hecklers, and picketing in Los Angeles, Paramount agreed to pass the distribution rights onto another company, Bryanston, which went bankrupt two weeks after the deal was completed. From the 1990s to 2012, the film was only available on VHS. Viewed today on OFDb Filmworks' region-free German Blu-Ray, the film's reference points have been obscured by the passage of time, but Bakshi's thematic points have not.
Two men, a preacher (Charles Gordone) and his friend Sampson (Barry White) hop in their car and drive to a far-off prison, where they hope to spring their friend, Randy (Philip Michael Thomas). Meanwhile, Randy has successfully reached the other side of the walls with the help of another prisoner, Pappy (Scatman Crothers), but Pappy isn't convinced that Randy's escape plan is a great idea, especially when Sampson and the preacher don't arrive on time. While they wait by the wall, Pappy tells Randy the story of three men, Rabbit (Thomas), Fox (Gordone), and Bear (White), who traveled from their hometown to check out the high life black people are supposedly living in Harlem. Instead of paradise, they find a rotten area full of resentment and anger, where people are more likely to fight each other for personal gain than rebel against white oppression.
One of the major reference points for Coonskin is Song of the South, Disney's legendary buried secret. In addition to the character names Rabbit, Fox, and Bear, both films employed a live-action story as a framework for extended animated segments. Although the similarities between the two films are not crucial to understanding Bakshi's message, it does provide some context for the style that Bakshi is using and emphasizes some of the film's satirical points. Late in the film, a group of white conspirators move to kill Rabbit, but end up mired in tar leaking out of the knife wounds they've left on his body, a reference to the "tar baby" parts of the Uncle Remus stories used in Song of the South. While some view "tar baby" as a racist term, Bakshi turns it back on its head using the original definition ("a sticky situation that gets worse the more one tries to solve it"). Time may have also softened the film's jabs at The Godfather, as its pop culture influence can only be viewed at a distance. One scene in Coonskin takes a jab at Godfather's glorification of criminals, an idea which is entirely unremarkable in 2014.
The dramatic core of the movie, though, is Bakshi's criticism of con men and the corrupt. In what could be called a conflicting message, one of the more prominent and consistent illustrations of this is the way the black community turns on itself, starting with a fat community leader named Simple Savior who elaborately martyrs himself, naked, on a giant lit-up cross, blasting photographs of John Wayne, Elvis Presley, and Richard Nixon to bits. Then, once everyone's wrapped up in the spectacle, out come the donation plates, a scam that Rabbit and his friends flip in their favor. From there, the film's central story arc finds Rabbit, Bear, and Fox all going their separate ways, each slowly corrupted by the promise of money, fame, or power. Rabbit becomes a drug dealer who mows down another black man in the middle of a speech about how he's finally found a career that will earn him more than shining shoes or dancing on a street corner. Fox sells out Rabbit to The Godfather (Al Lewis), whose business Rabbit is muscling in on. To do so, Fox snares Bear into a boxing career, where Bear makes a healthy salary beating up other black boxers for his white bosses.
Bakshi clearly disapproves of some of these decisions, but his jabs elsewhere are not subtle: in the first of a series of recurring scenes, a busty, blonde Miss America beats a black man to a bloody pulp when he tries to seduce her. Later in the film, Bear wins her attention through his boxing gig, but she laughs at the idea her respect is genuine in a bar later. A white cop named Madigan who rolls around terrorizing everyone in his wake gets a violent comeuppance, and a scene featuring the animated black characters and a live-action white couple who proclaim "We'd like to be different, but you're actually doing it!" is particularly scathing. Only the treatment of gay and trans people is a bit suspect, all of whom are shown to be aggressive or dumb, and generally revolting (although one of them represents an entirely different satirization of John Wayne's image). The film wanders through these messages a bit haphazardly, but Bakshi's message is not only clear, but remains resonant today. As far as society has evolved in the nearly 40 years since, we still live in a world where many black people would be overjoyed to own some of the things white people throw away.
OFDb Filmworks' German Blu-Ray of Coonskin seems to take all of its packaging cues straight from the US release of Coonskin on DVD by Xenon pictures. Both feature the Looney Tunes' "O" backdrop over white, with Rabbit standing in front of it in his white suit, and many of the font choices, as well as the captions that accompany the imagery appear to be the same, albeit in German. The single-disc release comes in a boxy Blu-Ray case, with a glossy slipcover featuring identical information, and a reversible cover that is also identical minus the giant German FSK rating logo (the logo is present on the slipcover).
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1.78:1 1080p AVC, I would guess that this HD presentation is sourced from the same master as Xenon's US DVD release (which boasted "remastered in high definition" on the front cover). Comparing the discs, the upgrade offers significant improvements, mostly in the management of the film's oftentimes heavy grain (more apparent during live-action footage than animated segments). The DVD version contains pervasive artifacts and blockiness, while the Blu-Ray offers a much more refined, film-like appearance. There is a sense that some colors could be a touch more robust, or more depth wrung from the image with a brand new scan, and print flecks and minor damage are still noticeable on this presentation, but the room for improvement is probably minimal. The animated segments look great, and no DNR or other forms of post-processing have been used to smooth away the grain. Audio is a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track that shows more signs of age than the picture, with a slightly tinny or hazy high end, but the stereo separation is still pretty good, and dialogue sounds fairly crisp. A German DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track and German subtitles are also provided, but, like the Xenon DVD, English subtitles are not offered.
Only two original theatrical trailers, in English and German. German-language trailers for The Body, Cold War, and I Declare War play before the main menu.
A few months ago, director Ralph Bakshi Tweeted about Coonskin and tagged Shout! Factory. Shout! Factory has yet to announce any US Blu-Ray of Coonskin, but it seems very likely that the advantage they would have is some extras with Bakshi's participation, should that come to fruition. Then again, some may remember that in 2010 Shout! announced an edition of the movie, only for legal wrangling to ultimately prevent it, with Xenon putting out the disc instead.
Coonskin is not a film for everyone, but while some of its pop culture references have been lost, its cultural messages are still pointed enough to draw blood. This region free Blu-Ray from Germany features a distinct improvement on the US DVD transfer for the film and no loss of extras or technical features (no subs on the previous DVD, and the inclusion of trailers is actually an addition). Some people will want to wait and see if Shout! Factory really does have an American Blu-Ray up their sleeves, especially if it includes supplements by Bakshi, but taken at face value, this disc is highly recommended.
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