Art by Victoria Elliott
The Many Loves of a Southern Cinephile:
What’s So Bad About Dirty, Racist Cartoons?
The first encounter I had with Ralph Bakshi’s work was the preview for American Pop in the barrage of trailers that used to occur on rented VHS tapes. (No matter how annoying they were, I’m kind of nostalgic for them now.) Despite the fact that the movie was originally released in 1981, it enjoyed a healthy, long-awaited video-release campaign in the late 1990s, due to its myriad song clearances. Both unsettled and fascinated by the concept of an adult cartoon, of course, I rented American Pop, but never quite made it through. Probably because there weren’t immediately enough boobs in it.
Which is, frankly, rare for a Bakshi film. There are usually plentiful boobs, even in his films supposedly geared towards children, like 1977’s adventure Wizards, which portends to be in the sci-fi/fantasy vein but ends up containing a startling touch of realism. For the most part, that realism comes in the form of rotoscoped footage of Nazi soldiers, one additional part is the omnipresent nipples on the fairy Elinore, whose slinky white V-shaped unitard seems to be the prototype for what Cool World’s Holli Would later dons.
So, yes, there are lots of hot cartoon ladies and sex—after all, Bakshi is perhaps best known for making the first-ever animated feature to receive an X rating (not to mention the single most successful independent animated feature of all time), Fritz the Cat, a movie adaptation of the R. Crumb comic strip that Crumb himself hated. Often, however, Bakshi’s portrayals of sex are mostly disturbing. There’s also a considerable amount of violence in his films, and, most notably, unapologetic depictions of racism.
Now, broaching the topic of racism in discussion with Mr. Bakshi himself is a precarious business—I’ve seen him questioned innocently by a film programmer at a special screening of one of his best and probably most notorious films, Coonskin (aka Street Fight, for those of you too squeamish to bandy about the pejorative term) a few years back at Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. Things did not end well. The programmer was only trying to introduce the 1975 animated feature as a perfect satire and scathing commentary on race in America. Mr. Bakshi, who is, by my estimation, a fairly crotchety old man, misunderstood him and exploded in ire, presuming the programmer was calling his film racist, and stormed out of the screening shouting “Go fuck yourself!” A little jarred, we all stayed and watched it anyway.
Coonskin isn’t my favorite Bakshi, but it's the one I return to the most. It’s both a mock-exploitation film made in the heyday of the blaxploitation era and a comic subversion of the minstrelsy-saturated Uncle Remus tales (remember, the same ones in Disney’s long-hidden Song of the South?). The main characters are still rural blacks, Brother Rabbit (voiced by Philip Michael Thomas, later of Miami Vice fame), Preacher Fox (voiced by Charles Gordone), and Brother Bear (voiced by the inimitable Barry White), but after they get caught up in a shootout at their brothel, the trio flees to the big city, specifically Harlem, to try to make a go of things and wait out the heat.
They all expect Harlem to be a black person’s paradise, but bear in mind, this is the 1970s, and they’re confronted instead by extreme poverty, drug addiction, even black community leaders gleefully swindling each other, not to mention the mafiosos who also do their part to take advantage of the urban black population. Of course, it’s a more complex socio-economic situation than that, which also somehow comes through. It’s an uncomfortable experience because, in keeping with exploitation film and minstrel traditions, the voiceovers are caricatures and the skin color is deeply black, like the shoe polish formerly used in blackface portrayals. There’s even a visual representation of America, embodied in an enormous, buxom, white-skinned blonde-haired blue-eyed woman in a star-spangled costume seducing and sexually abusing a black man. It’s an admittedly over-the-top metaphor, but the point of animation is to be surreal and exaggerated, and Bakshi’s provocateur’s soul is completely unafraid of showing you what he believes to be true about the black condition in America.
You may wonder what gives Bakshi the right to take on the mantle of racism, and the most obvious explanation is that he’s a Krymchak-born Jew, the child of Holocaust survivors. He can recall the atmosphere of fear, prejudice, and very real danger his parents fled. That, combined with formative years growing up between Brownsville, Brooklyn and in the mostly black neighborhood of Foggy Bottom, outside of D.C., gave Bakshi access to cultures also capable of being shunned. At least, this is my understanding based on what he mentioned in the few competent responses to questions I witnessed that evening. He never did quite account for why he wanted to make a film that focused on race in a wholly American way.
But it’s not the only place in his earlier films where it occurs. My absolute favorite Bakshi film, 1973’s Heavy Traffic, reads more like an animated Scorsese movie. There’s a young, creative Italian-American man, Michael (Joseph Kaufmann) growing up in a rough, fetid borough. He’s unemployed and feckless, but likable, and falls for a black bartendress, Carole (Beverly Hope Atkinson), which invites racist fury from his mafia-flunky father. Not only is the racial turmoil between urban blacks and Italian-Americans starkly represented, there are also severe renderings of homophobia and gay discrimination. It’s not handled in a particularly flattering light, but in its extreme expression, acknowledges that hatred towards gays is indeed a civil rights issue. Rife with borderline psychedelic sequences, amazing music, and a strong urban commentary, Heavy Traffic is a cohesive and provocative visual collage on par with any poignant art film.
American Pop fits well enough in this trilogy but it’s a departure in both style and expression. At heart, in its title, it’s an ambitious historical catalog of the music industry as it evolved in this country, from Jewish vaudevillians all the way to heroin-addicted hippies, and what they hath wrought. Abruptly, Bakshi opens the film with backstory: a pogrom on a Jewish community in Russia that inspires the emigration of surviving members to the United States. It’s from this family that we acquaint ourselves with show business around the turn of the century, obviously making an important claim about immigrant and namely Jewish immigrant influence on the brilliant journey of American music. It’s his only film that seems like a true love letter to his cultural heritage.
Yes, the film is a musical, and combines original versions of classic songs everywhere from Scott Joplin to Bob Dylan to Bob Seger with convincingly performed cover versions, all written fairly coherently into the script. The majority of the animation is rotoscoped, which always looks cool, but it’s definitely a different vibe from the characterizations in the other critically interesting Bakshi films.
Bakshi went on to helm the influential animation version of The Lord of the Rings, for which he’s well respected. His biggest-budget film, not to mention most recent, is the for-stoners-only Cool World, which, I feel, serves as little else than an amusing piece of ’90s cultural memorandum.
As painful, shocking, or flamboyant as Bakshi’s social critiques can be, I find his best animated films to be fresh representations of honest themes—there are moments that feel torn straight from James Baldwin or Hubert Selby, Jr.—so, okay, they may be extreme and powerful in the way that appeals to a young person’s need for statements and images to be extreme, but when they work, they're commendable for their sheer boldness.