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American Cinema and the Idea of Black Film
By Michael Boyce Gillespie
Duke University PressCopyright © 2016 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
Coonskin and the Racial Grotesque
Man without myth is Othello with Desdemona gone: chaos descends, faith vanishes, and superstitions prowl in the mind. ... It is the creative function of myth to protect the individual from the irrational, and since it is here in the realm of the irrational that, impervious to science, the stereotype grows we see that the Negro stereotype is really an image of the unorganized, irrational forces of American life, forces through which, by projecting them in forms of images of an easily dominated minority, the white individual seeks to be at home in the vast unknown world of America. Perhaps the object of the stereotype is not so much to crush the Negro as to console the white man.
— RALPH ELLISON, "TWENTIETH CENTURY FICTION," IN SHADOW AND ACT
"Fuck You. Shee-it. All right I'm going to give you an example. I heard that 350 of you white folks committed suicide by jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge. And out of the 350 there was only two that was niggas ... and one of them was pushed." The opening sequence of Ralph Bakshi's Coonskin (1975) is a joke delivered by two animated figures cast against the backdrop of a city sidewalk awash in the sound of sirens (fig. 1.1). These figures are so black that only the whites of their eyes and teeth make the sight of their face possible. They have the exaggerated physiognomy of distended lips and asses while dressed in hip 1970s urban clothes. Perhaps they are mutant cousins of the Disney blackbirds who in this case are too cool to care whether an elephant can fly. Hostile in its incongruent juxtaposing of suicide and racial violence (those who jumped and those who were pushed by persons unknown), the joke directly addresses you white folks. An inciteful act of discriminate identification, the joke exceeds strictly humor, especially in light of its irrational incompleteness: For what does the joke serve as an example? Is this an example of poor taste, of mortality, of proclivities? The amusing repulsiveness of the joke occurs with the absence of discernible response cues as wit gives way to discomfort.
Following the cruel aside on suicide, the film cuts to a medium close-up of the right side of a black face, the face of Scatman Crothers (fig. 1.2). A man with a smile wider than his bowlegs, this shaded sage of American film and musical theater was known throughout his performing career as Mr. Bones, Smiley, Shoeshine Boy, Moses, Smoke, Big Ben, Reverend Markham (Pigmeat?), Duke, and Pop. The majority of his characters do not have names but generic descriptors of slave naming and vernacular stardom. Yet he announces himself on this occasion with the sound of scat and the strumming of his guitar with an orality that does not subscribe immediately to the linguistic. Nathanial Mackey recognizes scat as an act of improvisation that perhaps represents how black cultural production demonstrates the limits of conventional linguistics to account for historical trauma. Thus scat operates as a code: "I think of such things as scat, where the apparent mangling of articulate speech testifies to an 'unspeakable' history such singers are both vanquishers and victims of." Amid this sonic ciphering of history, the lyrics rise to a naming: "Ah'm a Nigger Man." As Scatman sings, the film title appears to the right of his face as if the bluesman is singing the film into being. As the title sequence and the song draw to a close, the camera slowly tilts up, cross-fading into the beginning of the film. This tilt conveys a spatial measure of top and bottom and, tellingly, an aboveground and underground. Just what is this film trying to do?
Coonskin has been known primarily as a "lost" film enmeshed in the lore of a cult film too daring and controversial for its time. The basic plot concerns two prison convicts (Randy and Pappy) who, having just escaped their cells, sit waiting in the southern evening just outside the prison walls for the arrival of a getaway car driven by Randy's friends (Sampson and Preacher), due at dawn. Huddled in the shadows outside the scope of an arching spotlight, the young and impetuous Randy (Philip Thomas) stirs anxiously. In the absence of the "Once upon a time" standard, the older convict, Pappy (Scatman Crothers), says, "I just remembered. I use to know three guys just like you and your friends" (fig. 1.3). Thus begins the tale of Rabbit and his friends, Bear and Preacher Fox. Pappy's vernacular storytelling is animated by the anthropomorphized figures of a rabbit, a bear, and a fox (fig. 1.4). The film shifts between live action and animation while also combining the two visual fields with the use of a Rotograph.
The oral tradition gesture demonstrated by Pappy's story becomes the primary preoccupation of the film. Largely composed by animation, Coonskin significantly exposes the antiblack and fetishistic tendencies of the American imaginary so evident in the history of American animation and popular culture more broadly. Irene Kotlarz opines in regards to black representation in animation that despite the innocence of its form, "animation is important because the ideological force of its meanings can function precisely as an iron fist in the velvet glove of gags and sentimentality." In Coonskin the presumed innocuousness of the form, the "just for fun" shtick of animation, provokes amusement and horror. In league with Ellison's mordant observations in this chapter epigraph, Coonskin demonstrates prickly knowledge of the distinction between madness curbed and madness rising in the film's purposeful trafficking in antiblack visual culture. This chapter focuses on how Coonskin as an enactment of film blackness disputes the crushing or consoling intention of antiblack iconography that Ellison describes.
Pappy's tale begins with Rabbit, Bear, and Fox having lost their home to foreclosure. They are subsequently forced to flee to escape the possibility of violent reprisals from the white citizens of a town that the mise-en-scène codes as southern. The trio's escape brings to mind the "Big Boy Leaves Home" scenario of an escape in the night due to quotidian clashes with white supremacy, although in this instance the trio must flee because Rabbit is forced to kill the local sheriff in self-defense after being thought responsible for the pimping of his daughter. The fear of miscegenation and "the cult of true (white) womanhood" are derisively met by the impurity of a white girl who works in Darktown serving only colored clientele.
Arriving in the briar patch of Harlem, they are confronted by the empty promises of their migration dreams. In Harlem they battle a duplicitous preacher, drug dealers, corrupt cops, and the Mob as their misadventures conjure up the "hayseed in the city" folly but with the twist of a rebel brand of cotton coming to Harlem. The figure of Miss America taunts them in sardonic vignettes over the course of the film. Rabbit attempts to keep the Mafia-controlled drug trade out of Harlem, and the film builds to the climax of a boxing match and the trapping (and eventual detonation) of the Godfather and his gay sons in a ringside Tar-Baby. The film closes with a cut back to live action and the approaching dawn as Randy and Pappy escape by car amid a hail of bullets, with Bear and Preacher at the wheel. Throughout the film New York City operates as the live-action backdrop for the escalating vernacular madness of the animated tale. The scripted and etched sear of animation in this profilmic tableau becomes further amplified by the recording of and eventual post-synchronization of sounds from city streets, bars, and restaurants.
In Laughing Fit to Kill: Black Humor in the Fictions of Slavery, Glenda Carpio questions whether the possibility exists for contemporary artists to untether stereotypes from their fetishistic moorings, even as she remains wary that such work risks ultimately reinforcing the lure of stereotypicality: "As the prominence of stereotype-derived art in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries attests, the idea of forever cleansing the American psyche of its racial fetishes may be not only a futile project but one that might fuel the power of the fetish all the more by making it taboo and therefore seductive." The dilemma Carpio speaks of serves as the foundational question for this chapter and its examination of some of the ways Coonskin courts this risk of redirecting the force of antiblack iconography.
Coonskin represents the picaresque use of black vernacular culture from the antebellum and Reconstruction eras. The film stages slave folklore within a narrative resembling a blaxploitation film that parodically mimics Disney's Song of the South. Moreover the film strikes at the American imaginary and its dependence on "African Americanisms," what Toni Morrison calls "a fabricated brew of darkness, otherness, alarm, and desire that is uniquely American." The film vengefully redeploys aspects of this "fabricated brew" in a manner that perversely pivots on arresting antiblack visual culture for critical autopsy. This chapter echoes Morrison's own critical mission to examine the design of antiblack iconography and "avert the critical gaze from the racial object to the racial subject; from the described and imagined to the describers and imaginers; from the serving to the served." Coonskin exhibits a bruising aversion particularly for those spectators and civilians untutored in how their innocuous pleasures have been cultivated by a legacy of white supremacist and antiblack terror. As well, the film addresses those who are hatefully indifferent.
My analysis focuses on reaccentuation in the context of art, race, and historiography. The writings of Mikhail Bakhtin are critical to understanding how the racial grotesque derives new meaning from old ideas. In "Discourse in the Novel," Bakhtin writes, "Every age re-accentuates in its own way the works of its immediate past. ... Thanks to the intentional potential embedded in them, such works have proved capable of uncovering in each era and against ever new dialogizing backgrounds ever new aspects of meaning; their semantic content literally continues to grow, to further create out of itself." By focusing on Coonskin, a film that complicates and contends with history and craft, I emphasize how the film stages the racial grotesque and compels new and timely encounters with those abhorrent American hegemonies focused on race, nation, and citizenship. Coonskin is always timely as the racial grotesque is never simply the anachronistic revival of a dead phenomenon but is also a creative practice attendant to the continued impact of racialization and white supremacy. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin considers the "carnivalesque" and "grotesque realism" in the work of François Rabelais, addressing the "material bodily principle" of medieval folk culture and detailing how the grotesque body, along with all manner of precious bodily fluids and orifices, performatively disturb and shock social hierarchies. Bakhtin stipulates, "The essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body in indissoluble form." It is the indissoluble quality of this degradation and the irreconcilable tension of grotesque realism that drives my consideration of Coonskin.
Despite warranted accusations of homophobia and misogyny, this film has much to offer a consideration of antiblack visual culture. In fact it might provide an opportunity to understand (not forgive) its misogyny and homophobia by taking its antiblack critique into account. In particular I examine how the film's employment of the racial grotesque operates as both a parodic and a satirical critique of the affective economies of antiblack visual culture. Sara Ahmed frames emotions in terms of an economy or structure of exchange and transaction: "Affect does not reside in an object or sign, but is an effect of the circulation between objects and signs (=the accumulation of affective value). Signs increase in affective value as an effect of the movement between signs: the more signs circulate, the more affective they become." Thus I consider how the film rhetorically mobilizes and parodically stages especially notorious aspects of American history attentive to the affective values of antiblack iconography. As a cumulative chain of recontextualizations, Coonskin disrupts the transactional web of antiblack nostalgia that has perpetuated and profited, in a material and affective sense, from black degradation.
Coonskin as visual historiography thrives on the ceaseless quality of history and also a sense of what Sianne Ngai calls "reanimation." In Ugly Feelings, Ngai analyzes three distinct figurations of animation and suggests that "racial stereotypes and clichés, cultural images that are perversely both dead and alive, can be critically countered not just by making the images more 'dead' (say, by attempting to stop their circulation), but also, though in more equivocal fashion, by reanimating them." Coonskin reanimates the iconography of antiblack visual culture as a metapicture that cogently contests the rendering of blackness, national mythology, the circuits of pop culture, and cultural memory in the key of the racial grotesque.
Here's a Little Story That Must Be Told
Before continuing with a closer textual analysis of the film, I focus on the production and exhibition history of the film and the importance of the narrative premise. Following the success of Fritz the Cat (1972) and Heavy Traffic (1973) with his Bakshi Productions Company, Ralph Bakshi began writing the script for Coonskin under the working title Harlem Nights after abandoning an adaptation of Herbert Selby's Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964): "I told [the investors] it was a remake of Song of the South set in Harlem. I told them I want to make the Uncle Remus stories and then I started to make my film. ... It was a rope a dope. What these guys thought I was making and what I was making were two different things." Born in Israel and a decidedly nonblack, Russian Jew who grew up in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Brownsville, Bakshi became the immediate face and target of the project.
Billed as its premiere, the screening of Coonskin at the University of Iowa took place on 7 September 1974. The film then had a work-in-progress showing on 12 November at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. The screening was disrupted by a protesting contingent of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) led by Al Sharpton and was followed by a disastrous question-and-answer session with a very combative audience and an unsympathetic Bakshi. In the wake of the MoMA screening, Elaine Parker, the chair of CORE'S Harlem chapter, commented, "It depicts us as slaves, hustlers, and whores. It's a racist film to me, and very insulting. ... If it is released, there's no telling what we might do." The film was beset by CORE-coordinated protests and nationwide pressure from the black press throughout the year leading up to its release. Its black actors were branded as "traitors to the race," and the black cultural nationalist creed of art as an implement of consciousness raising decried the film as a criminal act against black people: "This movie will not go on at the expense of the black community. ... We charge them [Bakshi, Ruddy, and Paramount] with high crimes against black people — stereotyping and degrading blacks. ... If you try to stop a factory from polluting the environment, is that censorship? Coonskin is a form of mental pollution."
The film underwent numerous edits and dialogue replacement over much of 1975. This postproduction tinkering led to release delays that pushed the film further down the studio calendar. The continued controversy and activist protest was the purported reason Paramount eventually dropped Coonskin. Soon afterward, a distribution deal for the film was then negotiated with the independent Bryanston Distribution Company not long before the film's scheduled premiere. Opening in August 1975 to a handful of bomb threats and smoke bomb incidents at theaters throughout New York City, Coonskin received a limited run throughout the United States and the United Kingdom, sometimes under the title Bustin' Out. For most of the press, criticism of the film was cemented by the MoMA screening. Almost universally dismissed by critics and with an atrocious box office performance, the film was abruptly pulled from theaters after only a two-week run when Bryanston Distributors went bankrupt. In 1987 the picture resurfaced on video under the title Streetfight. Over the next two decades Coonskin primarily circulated on video-sharing websites, in bootleg DVDS, and on a much-heralded "ghost orchid," a Japanese laserdisc.
Excerpted from Film Blackness by Michael Boyce Gillespie. Copyright © 2016 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments ix
Introduction. We Insist: The Idea of Black Film 1
1. Reckless Eyeballing: Coonskin and the Racial Grotesque 17
2. Smiling Faces: Chameleon Street and Black Performativity 51
3. Voices Inside (Everything is Everything): Deep Cover and Modalities of Noir Blackness 83
4. Black Maybe: Medicine for Melancholy, Place, and Quiet Becoming 119
Coda. Destination Out 157
What People are Saying About This
"What is black film? Does it involve a black director and a black cast? Is it meant for a black audience? Michael Boyce Gillespie directs us beyond these all-too-familiar questions to an ever expansive and spiraling investigation of the work that cinematic blackness does for visual culture and public life. Beautifully written, meditative, and richly insightful, Film Blackness critically intervenes in the slippages between representational systems, aesthetic and genre conventions, and racial discourse. Building off the work of art historians, visual theorists, and scholars of affective economies, Gillespie brings a remarkable attention to detail and sustained and revelatory readings to open up scenes, dialogues, and figurations of black/ness. Film Blackness is a major contribution to cinema and genre studies, American studies, black cultural studies, and visual culture."