Who Framed Brer Rabbit? – Racial Politics in Walt Disney’s Song of the South and Ralph Bakshi’s Coonskin.
by Bradley Tuck –
Dat de reason I don’t like ter tell no tale ter grown folks, speshually ef dey er white folks. Dey ‘ll take it an’ put it by de side er some yuther tale what dey got in der min’ an’ dey’ll take on dat slonchidickler grin what allers say, ‘Go way, nigger man! You dunner what a tale is!’ An’ I don’t – – I’ll say dat much fer ter keep some un else funi sayin’ it.[i]
Uncle Remus in Joel Chandler Harris’ New Stories of the Old Plantation
Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained takes us on a journey through the last few years of legalised slavery in America. On this journey we encounter Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson). Stephen is a slave, an “inferior”, but one who has acquired some status and other relative “privileges.” Given these relative “privileges,” he binds himself with loving allegiance to his master, the slave owner. Behind his loving grin and mischievous chuckle lies his own complicity in slavery. In fact, not only is he aligned with the slave owner, he seems to sadistically relish the power it gives him over other slaves. In contrast, Django is a trickster, who uses his brains and cunning to escape traps and enact vengeance. Django is like heroes from the 1970s blaxploitation genre. He’s like Coffy, Priest or Sweetback, who killed racist cops, avenged the mafia, took out corrupt politicians or struggled in a criminal underworld only to rise triumphant.
If Django is a trickster in the spirit of blaxploitation cinema, it is tempting to interpret Stephen as a perverse and dark hearted Uncle Remus; the famous storyteller from Joel Chandler Harris’ books. Joel Chandler Harris was a folklorist and journalist who documented African-American folk tales. Theses tales had been passed down through the oral tradition between African-Americans working on the plantations and if not explicitly, then implicitly, the stories appeared to reflect centuries of slavery. Maurice Rapf[ii], tells us that:
If you read the fables carefully you find they are stories of slave resistance. Brer Rabbit symbolised the smaller, less powerful black man. Brer Fox, Brer Bear, and Brer Coon were the oppressive whites, and the stories were all about how to outwit the masters.[iii]
Ralph Bakshi also notes that these stories were “hysterical in as much as they were black slaves dictating stories about how to get around white masters.”[iv] Bernard Wolf notes how within these stories lay a white man’s nightmare, where “whites are Negroes, the weak torture and drown the strong, mere blackness becomes black magic – and Negroes cavort with cosmic forces, and the supernatural, zipping their skins off at will to prowl around the countryside terrorizing whites, often in the guise of rabbits…”[v]
Joel Chandler Harris appeared not to notice these aggressive tones. Or maybe he did and wished to banish them from his sight. With the aid of his own character, the lovable chuckling Negro servant, Uncle Remus, Harris dampened the blow. Uncle Remus was a kind-natured ex-slave and storyteller, who told these stories to a little white child, son of the plantation owner. With the aid of Remus, Harris appeared able to soften the tales’ aggressive connotations. As Frantz Fanon writes, “In order to protect themselves against their own unconscious masochism, which impels them to rapturous admiration of the (black) rabbit’s prowess, the whites have tried to drain these stories of their aggressive potential.”[vi]
Uncle Remus is Harris’s vehicle to provide, what he calls, a “curious sympathetic supplement to Mrs. Stowe’s wonderful defence of slavery as it existed in the South.”[vii] He takes the servile figure of Uncle Tom from Uncle Tom’s Cabin, renames him Uncle Remus and weds him to the cunning trickster from the plantation folktales. Through Harris a marriage is made. The malevolent trickster and subservient storyteller are united. Harris tells us that Remus “has nothing but pleasant memories of the discipline of slavery, and […] has all the prejudices of caste and pride of family that were natural results of the system.”[viii] Uncle Remus seems the absolute opposite to the trickster rabbit. He is the obedient servant, who can alleviate racial “guilt” with his charming grin. Through Remus’ grin, the stories are recast and gift-wrapped.
Harris, then fitted the hate-imbued folk material into a framework, a white man’s framework, of “love.” He took over the animal characters and situations of the original stories and gave them a human setting: the loving and lovable Negro narrator, the adoring white auditor. Within this framework of love, the blow was heavily padded with caresses and the genuine folk was almost emasculated into cute folksy.[ix]
Uncle Remus was the perfect framing device, deflecting attention from the white guilt and the black hate and, instead offering an image of interracial love. “Uncle Remus” is the device that makes the bunny palatable to the newly acquired white audience, who consume it cleansed of hate and injected with love. The character of Uncle Remus allows us to turn away from the historical context of racism and oppression and reinvent the stories where the days of slavery and caste can be romanticized, ignored or forgotten.
Remus and the rabbit, or, to put it more generally, the servant and the trickster appear as archetypes who loiter in the American cinematic unconscious ready to re-emerge at any moment. If the trickster manifests in everything from Bugs Bunny to blaxploitation. the cheery self-contented slave is continually re-imagined in everything from Uncle Tom to the persistent image of the Black maid (the staple of many early Hollywood films) to Tarantino’s Stephen. It is with irony then that Harris’ Remus worries about his stories being appropriated and mixed with other tales. From Harris’s literary output to Disney’s musical Song of the South (1946), and from Bakshi’s blaxploitation cartoon Coonskin (1975) to The Adventures of Brer Rabbit (2006), the tales of Uncle Remus (sometimes cleansed of Uncle Remus) have been re-shaped and reinvented throughout cinema history. I will focus on how two of these films (Song of the South and Coonskin) have used cinematic devises to frame the little rabbit, sometimes to ensnare him, and other times to set him free.
The Disneyfication of Uncle Remus
Disney wanted to remain true to Harris’ stories, whilst adding a little magic of its own. Uncle Remus undergoes a Disney makeover, including a beaming grin, uplifting songs and a battalion of cutesy animated animals following him around in a manner not dissimilar to Snow White (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937). Through Disney, Uncle Remus was transformed from a humble storyteller to a Hollywood hero and moral guide, in some respects more like Mary Poppins (Mary Poppins 1964) than the servile Uncle Tom. Like Mary Poppins, Uncle Remus becomes the portal to magical enchantment and wonderment.
As with Mary Poppins, the foil of Song of the South is the middle-class family who seem unable to perceive problems beyond the end of their nose, or as Remus puts it, they were “mixed up in their own troubles.” You may have assumed that these troubles would have been political in nature. As Southern slave-owners they had just lost the civil war and had to adjust to the emancipation act which made it illegal to own slaves. Yet they seem to be doing fine.[x] Their problems weren’t so much economic or political, but personal. The troubles come to light as Johnny, his parents and their black maid, Aunt Tempy, travel to see Johnny’s Grandma at the plantation in the heart of the Southern country-side. Johnny knows that something is up. “Mamma,” he asks, “why are we going to Grandma’s?” “Why I told you dear, for a visit,” replies Miss Sally, his mother. She isn’t telling him something. Johnny persists, “Why didn’t she come to ours like last spring?” An awkward expression appears on Miss Sally’s face and in an attempt to divert the conversation she replies, “I thought you would enjoy seeing the plantation.” Johnny is not convinced and continues to pry. “Is Grandma mad at us?” Johnny suspects that Grandma might be angry at what his father, Mr John, writes in his newspaper. Everyone else is! But that isn’t it. His father reassures Johnny that Grandma “likes what she reads.”
Underneath the façade, however, two problems present themselves, one personal, concerning John and Sally’s marriage, the other political, some controversy with the newspaper. But we, like Johnny, are denied access to the finer details. Instead, Johnny (and the audience) are distracted from the awkward topic by talk of Uncle Remus. Johnny’s eyes are aglow. Johnny ask in amazement, “Is Uncle Remus real?” “Real!” Aunt Tempy replies. “Of course he is real. Wait until he tells you the tale of Brer Rabbit, then you’ll know he’s real.”
The carriage rides into the plantation and travels up to the house where they are met by Johnny’s Grandma. She asks Toby, a black child of similar age to Johnny, to take care of Johnny and make sure he doesn’t get into trouble. Johnny and Toby appear to make friends instantly. On the one hand, Toby is a servant to Johnny. He has certain duties to perform and is, in a respect, an inferior. But Johnny doesn’t see that. They are almost instantaneously friends and equals. Despite being a plantation where slaves have only very recently gained emancipation, there appears, at least superficially, no racial tension at all. The real trouble centres around the marital unit. The couple seems weighed down by city life and the political controversies at the newspaper. This southern plantation seems unscathed after defeat during the civil war and the emancipation act, and appears instead as the epitome of social harmony. The troubles, it would seem, are emanating from city life. It is to these troubles, that Mr. John, as soon as he arrives, must return, whilst simultaneously leaving his marriage in the balance.
Johnny is distraught as his father’s leaving and knows something is wrong. That night he decides to run away. He packs a hamper and leaves the plantation house. But it isn’t long before he runs into Uncle Remus and the ever-cheerful black plantation workers. The plantation and the woods that surround it are filled with joyful singing. They are in direct contrast with the feel of the cold and stern plantation house. Whereas the wealthy white family seem cold, stern and self absorbed, the ex-slave plantation workers appear not to have a trouble in the world. Jim Korkis draws out the critique of this caricature by quoting Frederick Douglas.
I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the North, to find persons who speak of singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy.[xi]
Disney’s message is somewhat different. In Song of the South, Remus sings with full hearted glee.
Zip-a-dee-doo-dah zip-a-dee-ay, My oh my what a wonderful day, Plenty of sunshine heading my way, Zip-a-dee-doo-dah zip-a-dee-ay
Disney, true to form, shares none of Douglas’ sobering sentiments. This is not particular to Song of the South. Disney films are rife with the glamorisation of hard work with the addition of a whistle. From Snow Whites’ domestic work ethic of “whistle while you work” to Mary Poppins’ spoonful of sugar that keeps chimney sweeps counting their lucky stars, workers leap, dance and sing from the roof tops.[xii] In Disney films, the oppressed, poor and exploited aren’t really oppressed, poor or exploited at all. Uncle Remus is a perfect example. Of all the characters in Songs of the South it is the black plantation workers that seem the most happy. According to Douglas Brode, this demonstrates that the film, contrary to popular belief, is not a racist film.
Remus signifies the film’s moral centre, positively influencing the Anglo child-hero, Johnny (Bobby Driscoll). Remus resembles Mary Poppins […] in coating the pill of moral education in an entertaining manner. He, according to the dictates of Romantic philosophy, has learned what is truly important by living close to the earth. Distraught Johnny, running away from home after his father leaves, is drawn to the warmth and beauty of the black community, enjoying gospel songs in the woods. Whenever Johnny peers back over his shoulder at the plantation house, it appears cold, aloof, off-putting. Remus’ cabin is where Johnny feels completely at home—loved, wanted, respected. “Mr. Bluebird’s on my shoulder,” Remus at one point sings, as an animated bluebird descends. He, like Davy Crockett, Snow White, and other Disney heroes, is Rousseau’s natural man, that philosopher’s best man. The essential irony of Song is, in the Romantic-philosophic vein, how oblivious adult whites (particularly Ruth Warrick as Miss Sally, the most civilized and corrupt among them) are to the true meaning of life, as compared to how open and aware the earthy and unpretentious blacks are.[xiii]
It is worth unpacking what this “romanticism” amounts to. Rousseau tells us, “most of our ills are our own making, and we might have simply avoided them all by adhering to the simple, uniform and solitary way of life prescribed by nature.”[xiv] The savage is a “stranger to almost every disease, except those occasioned by wounds and old age.” In contrast, Rousseau tell us that “the history of human disease might easily be composed by pursuing that of civil societies.”[xv] If the state of nature, for Rousseau, remained preferable to our own civil societies, it was not because nature was free of pain, suffering, wounds and old age, but because knowledge and social kinship brought problems of its own. Rousseau, however, was also deeply egalitarian and deeply despised the master-slave relationship. Rousseau tells us to
…tolerate neither rich people nor beggars. These two conditions, naturally inseparable, are equally fatal to the general welfare; from the one class spring tyrants, from the other, the supporters of tyranny; it is always between these that the trafﬁc in public liberty is carried on; the one buys and the other sells.[xvi]
In light of this, Rousseau concludes, “as to wealth, no citizen should be rich enough to be able to buy another, and none poor enough to be forced to sell himself.”[xvii] For Rousseau, it is the modern civil society itself that has brought with it rabid inequality. Disney romanticism, however, shares none of Rousseau’s egalitarian concerns. If figures such as Snow White and Uncle Remus find themselves at home in nature it is because they have learned to whistle while they work: to escape natures grievances with a smile.
Disney romanticism, finds emancipation in the beggars and the poor, in plantation workers, chimney sweeps, and socially outcast dwarfs. In the Disney film, it is those who are excluded from society that are free from its diseases, delusions and social pressures. Plantation workers, dwarfs in the mines and chimney sweeps who sing and dance with delight and abandonment are free, but the middle-class families, bound by social expectations, shoulder the weight of civil society. From a Disney perspective, poverty, exploitation and slavery may turn out to be a blessing in disguise for its so-call victims, who, it turns out, are freed from the weight of sociality.
For Brode, however, Song of the South is not about the master-slave relationship.
Following Song’s release, the NAACP issued a statement praising Song for its “remarkable artistic merit” but decrying “the impression it gives of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts.” This evaluation derives from the mistaken (if universal) notion that Song is set during the pre–Civil War era. In fact, the film takes place in 1867. The film’s blacks are freedmen who chose to work for wages on those plantation where they once served as slaves. [xviii]
It is hard to see this as much of a rebuttal. If 1867 is accurate then that is only 2 years after the end of the civil war and the emancipation act, which made it illegal to own slaves. These so-called “freemen” still live under the residue of centuries of slavery. Their culture, consciousness and material conditions remain conditioned by the pre-existing fabric of slavery. In the film, despite the emancipation act, the black servants still hold an inferior position (they are there to serve the rich white family), they are poor and their children have no access to education.
At one point Toby says to Remus, “Uncle Remus, you tell the best tales in the whole united states of Georgia.” He seems ignorant of the social-political landscape of the time. This has often been criticised for its apparent mockery of a black character.[xix] However, it is one of the very few honest moments in the entire film. It is one of the very few moments where the inequality of the plantation is made so evident and obvious. Unequal opportunities and access to eduction are what distinguishes Johnny and Toby, and even if the ex-slaves are free to leave, they are bound by lock and chain to the plantation, which serves to sustain their livelihood.
But Remus doesn’t just sing songs. He tells tales. In the company of Remus, Johnny is quickly introduced to Brer Rabbit. As Remus starts telling a story we are transported from the live-action world to a cartoon wonderland. Here the Brer Rabbit fables are re-imagined in the spirit of the slapstick cartoons of the 1940s such as MGM’s Tom and Jerry or Warner Brother’s Bugs Bunny. The parallels between such cartoons and the African-American folk tales are evident. In both, it is an animal from the lower end of the pecking order (Jerry the mouse or Bugs Bunny) who outwits a cat or hunter (Tom or Elmer Fudd). These animations, like the folk tales, are essentially tales of a power struggle, which become increasingly sadistic, as cats and hunters get their comeuppance. However, if these cartoons introduced an element of the macabre, they simultaneously save us from it. No-one dies for too long and they are soon resurrected with no apparent wounds or injuries. The slapstick nature of the violence prevents us having to confront real violence.
However, slapstick violence itself doesn’t necessarily depoliticise. Disney depoliticises these tales by framing them with the live-action that makes it clear that these stories are not about the master-slave relationship at all. As Maurice Rapf notes, in Songs of the South Brer Rabbit is not meant to be the slave outwitting his master, but the “alter ego of the little white boy.”[xx] Throughout the film Remus’ stories teach him seeds of “wisdom.” In the first, Brer Rabbit decides to run away and leave his troubles behind. However, he runs straight into Brer Fox’s trap. As he has very little strength, he can only escape by using his head. He does this by tricking Brer Bear to take his place. The message, for Johnny, is that he can’t run away from his troubles. Johnny then decides not to run away.
Remus tells him another story for dealing with bullies. Johnny is being bullied by the Favers brothers, Jack and Joe. The Favers are a poor white family that work on the plantation. It becomes clear that Jack and Joe, and not the white slave masters, are the human equivalent of Brer Fox and Brer Bear. Johnny befriends the brothers’ younger sister, Ginny, who gives Johnny the runt from their new litter of puppies. As Johnny isn’t allowed a puppy of his own he secretly leaves it with Uncle Remus in his cabin, but the Favers brothers are furious. They want it back. Remus’ tale of the Tar Baby serves to teach Johnny methods to deal with such bullies. In this version of the tar baby, Brer Fox and Brer Bear create a trap for Brer Rabbit in the form of a doll made of tar. The trap is left out for Brer Rabbit, and Brer Fox and Brer Bear lie low. Brer Rabbit comes skipping down the road and when the Tar Baby fails to respond to his “how do you do?”, Brer Rabbit picks a fight and soon finds himself covered in tar.
Bernard Wolf provides an interesting racial reading of this story. Tar for him is blackness and “tar, blackness, by its very yeilding, traps.”[xxi] But in the Disney film tar is simply a metaphor for messing around in other people’s business: something the Favers brothers themselves need to learn. Brer Rabbit now in the clutches of Brer Bear and Brer Fox manages to escape through his masterful use of reverse psychology: “Knock my head clean off, hang me, skin me,” Brer Rabbit says, “but whatever you do, please don’t throw me in that briar patch.” Brer Fox falls into his trap and flings the bunny into the thistles and thorns, and Brer Rabbit, born and bred in a briar patch, makes his escape. The story serves to teach Johnny a technique to conquer bullies. As Johnny and Toby are walking home they meet the Favers Brothers, who tell Johnny that they will tell his mother about the dog that he is secretly keeping in Remus’ cabin. He replies, “go ahead, tell Aunt Tempy, tell Grandma, you can even tell my mum, but whatever you do don’t tell your mum.”
On another occasion, after being attacked by the Favers Brothers, Uncle Remus tells Johnny and Ginny a tale to cheer them up. In this story, Brer Rabbit avoids being eaten by telling Brer Fox and Brer Bear about his laughing place. Brer Bear is intrigued and refuses to let Brer Fox cook the rabbit until he has seen this laughing place. Brer Rabbit leads them to a bees hive and watches the two of them being stung. When Brer Bear says, “You said this was a laughing place and I ain’t laughing.” Brer Rabbit replies, “I didn’t said it was your laughing place, I said it was my laughing place, Brer Bear.”
It is hard not to notice the sadism that underpins this tale, but the children only see love. “I wish I had a laughing place,” says Johnny. “Me too,” says Ginny and so they set out on finding their own laughing place. If Harris transformed these stories from tales of hate to tales of love, Disney follows suit transforming the tales, adding cutesy moralism in excess.
The moral lesson of the film, however, is not aimed at Johnny, but his mother. Absorbed in her own marital worries and concerned for her son, she seems unable to genuinely see his needs. She tells her son that he must prepare for a visit from his grandmother (his father’s mother). He responds, “but Toby and I were going frog hunting.” She reassures him, “That is alright Darling, you can go another day.” On the one hand she is dismissive, failing to attend to her son’s concerns. On the other hand, she wraps her disregard in reassuring tones and loving maternal charms. She enacts the role of what she believes a “proper mother” should be, but in doing so she often fails to attend to what her son really wants and needs.
She is unlike her mother, who, whilst a plantation owner, seems far more tolerant, empathetic and understanding of others. Grandma’s experiences as a slave-owner seems to have helped her acquire tolerance, empathy and understanding. In contrast, Miss Sally, the city dweller, is cold, lacking in empathy and disapproving. She is immediately opposed to letting her son have a dog, and when the Favers brothers finally tell her that Uncle Remus is keeping it in his cabin, she tells the children that, “Uncle Remus will get you your dog back to you.” If Remus was a freeman he would be within his rights to keep the dog, but Miss Sally doesn’t see him that way and neither does Remus himself. He passively complies with Sally’s orders. She is also disapproving of Remus’ stories and says that “it would be better for [Johnny] not to hear that story for a while.” With Remus no longer able to tell stories and having lost his dog, Johnny begins to feel the joy and support that was helping him through a family crisis slip away.
Johnny’s empathetic grandmother sees what Miss Sally misses. “Without Remus and his stories, the child would be absolutely desolate,” she says. “He needs something.” Heeding her mother’s advice, Miss Sally decides to arrange a party. The party, however, will be a segregated party with no black (Toby) or poor white (Ginny) children present. When Johnny asks if he can invite Ginny, Miss Sally seems to launch into another of her reassuring dismissals: “Well there will be plenty of other girls and boys…” But her mother finishes her sentence, “…that one more won’t make any difference.” Unlike her daughter, Grandma seems to understand that Johnny needs his friends, even if they are from a different economic and social class.
Uncle Remus, as compliant and subservient as he tries to be, can’t stop telling stories. When Miss Sally finds this out she is very upset. Failing to see that her son’s erratic behaviour may be a consequence of the fragile family life, she blames Remus and tells him, “From now on I want to you to stay away from Johnny, you understand? Completely away.” Good subservient Remus understands and he complies without answering back. But even if slavish and compliant in response, Remus does what only a freeman can do; leave. When Johnny finds out he chases after Remus. His mother’s attempt to protect him leads to the complete opposite and Johnny, distraught and upset, takes a short cut through a dangerous field only to be mauled by a bull.
That night the plantation is filled with sadness and mourning. The black servants sing and pray outside the plantation house. Mr. John has returned, but the child is not responding. Mr John and Miss Sally wait and worry. Johnny calls out for Uncle Remus in his sleep. His Grandmother calls Remus in and he begins telling stories. Hearing the stories, Johnny wakes to find his father there too: “Daddy!” he screams. The family appear united again and Miss Sally seems to have changed her heart. Drawing from Uncle Remus, she tells her son, “we will have the laughinous place in the whole world.” Miss Sally learns to lighten up and gives her son fun on his own terms. With the family unit restored, Remus leaves telling us that “things are looking mighty satifactual.”
In the final scene, Johnny has recovered and is running and singing hand in hand with Toby and Ginny. “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah,” they sing as Uncle Remus watches on. Suddenly Brer Rabbit appears and greets them, before long a whole host of cartoon animals and even Johnny’s dog is running with them as they dance up the hill. Douglas Brode draws our attention to the multiculturalist connotations of the scene.
In Song’s final shot, total integration is achieved. A recovered Johnny (privileged white) takes the hands of Ginny (poor white) and Toby (poor black) to dance together, drifting away from civilization (the plantation) into the natural world (beyond Remus’s cabin).[xxii]
Douglas Brode sees in Songs of the South a multiculturalist dream grounded in a romantic admiration of nature. In this respect, the ending of Song of the South parallels Disney’s 1964 theme park ride It’s a Small World, which presented nationalities from around the world living in harmony. The ride celebrated diversity by showing children of every nation, as puppets, singing the same song. Each child was dressed in clothing that expressed their cultural and regional differences and sang their song in their own language. At the end of the ride the children of the world came together to sing the song in unison.
Brode here highlights an important facet often overlooked by critics of Disney. Whilst conservative in some respects, Disney is often deeply committed to some model of multiculturalism, which in some respects is progressive. There is, however, something problematic about this multiculturalism. Walt Disney has often been described as both a racist and a multiculturalist.[xxiii] The two elements would appear to contradict. However, what if Disney’s racism were not a product of racial hatred or maliciousness, but inherent in the company’s multiculturalism itself? Disney films seem to be swamped in multiculturalist denial, politeness and political correctness.
The multiculturalism of It’s a Small World is blind to economic inequality, social injustice and ideological differences. The theme park ride is a utopia, positing a world full of diversity and harmony, whilst ignoring real world tensions and struggles. Utopian dreams and ideals can be valuable and inspiring, but are easily corrupted when they are celebrated at the expense of facing social and economic injustice. When used at the expense of fighting injustice, such utopian ideas often risk placing a halo on existing inequalities rather than challenging us to invent a new world. This is why Brode’s defence of Song of the South is itself problematic.
Never during the film does Toby’s blackness become an issue, and at no point is the issue of race raised among adults. Johnny’s grandmother (Lucille Watson), living closer to nature than her Atlanta-bound daughter, treats Remus as an old friend rather than a former slave.[xxiv]
It is hard not to think of Oscar Wilde’s remark that, “the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it.”[xxv] Far from presenting multicultural equality, Song of the South uses multicultural motifs to glorify the inequalities of plantation life. The final sequence, where the children skip away from the plantation, does not signal an emancipated future, but, as Brode points out, the embrace of nature. Just as Grandma, the former slave-owner, demonstrates that tolerance and racial unity emanate from the plantation and not the city, the children find magic not in social justice, but the natural world. The horizon to which the children and animals skip is not, therefore, the horizon of a full and genuine racial emancipation, but mere diversity; a diversity that ignores questions of equality and well being; a diversity grounded in denial.
I would like to think of Ralph Bakshi as a counter-Disneyan. If the point of Disney is to deny racial and political wounds, the point of Bakshi is to lay them bare. Bakshi is not asking us to deny equality in the name of a good ol’ multiculturalist sing along. Instead, Bakshi asks deep and soul-searching questions. In this respect, Ralph Bakshi’s Coonskin should be read as a response to Disney’s Song of the South. Like Song of the South, Coonskin tells the stories of Brother Rabbit through slapstick animation, framing it with live-action. Coonskin is a film that integrates blaxspoitation cinema, the Brer Rabbit tales and Bakshi’s own animated politically satirical slapstick that he developed in Fritz the Cat (1972) and Human Traffic (1973).
It could be argued that Coonskin “politically corrects” Song of the South by removing Uncle Remus and by calling Brer Rabbit by his full name: Brother Rabbit. But Coonskin is far removed from politically safe retellings, which, like The Adventures of Brer Rabbit, removes Remus and his young auditor and focuses instead on the fables. Coonskin, in contrast, attempts to draw out the subversive potential of the original stories, whilst simultaneously forcing us to address the racism that has circulated them. By focusing on the power dynamic implicit in the early tales, Coonskin is not attempting to tone down the racial controversies of Song of the South, but amp them up. Coonskin doesn’t attempt to cleanse Disney of its former bigotry, but instead, addresses what Disney’s denial helps us ignore.
The film opens with footage of a real life street, possibly somewhere in Harlem. On this street stand two black American male cartoon characters, dressed in contemporary (1970s) clothes. One of the Characters tells us, “Now I am going to give you a little example. I heard that 150 of you white folks committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, and out of those 150 there was only two that were Niggers and one of them was pushed.” They laugh as they turn and walk away. The scene is directly followed by a profile view of Scatman Crothers from the left side of the screen against a yellow background. Crothers is singing: “I’m the Minstrel Man/I’m the Cleaning Man/I’m the Po’ man/I’m the shoe shine man/I’m the Nigger Man, Watch me dance.” This Blues song functions as a parody of the Remus character: the negro who is there to serve, perform and is too poor to refuse. The song could be seen to be a re-visioning of “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah” by presenting the things the song implicitly denies. This Remus-like character is undeniably struggling (“I’ve been waiting on the welfare line, the employment line, the gas line, since 9, now I’m waiting on the pawn shop line”) and yet also determined, angry and perseverant (“walk on Niggers, walk on”).
The song and the animated sequence that precedes it display a darker side of reality with an abrasive attitude that is controversial and blunt. In this respect it follows in the footsteps of 70s blaxploitation films. If Remus is (partially) retained, he is no longer the overall framing device. In the film, the Brer Rabbit stories are framed by a live-action blaxploitation film. Where Song of the South focused on a young white boy visiting his Grandmother’s plantation and listening to Uncle Remus’ stories, in Coonskin, the Brer Rabbit tales are told against the backdrop of a prison-break.
Preacherman (Charles Gordone) and Sampson (Barry White) attempt to break their partner, Randy (Philip Michael Thomas), out of prison. Randy hides by the prison wall ready to make his escape. He is accompanied by Pappy (Scatman Crothers), an older prisoner, who has come along for the ride. “This nigger hasn’t been this side of the wall for 100 year,” he says. “And what the fuck makes you think I ain’t enjoying myself being here?” The two of them wait by the wall, but it ain’t long until Paps is telling a story. “Hey Man, I just remember, I used to know three guys, just like you and your friends…”
Unlike the Disney and Harris versions, where the stories are being told to white children on a plantation, in this film the stories are told from black people to black people. Pappy, unlike Remus, is not a cheery Uncle Tom with a happy disposition. He is blunt, abrupt and to the point. In this respect, the film is presented from the trickster’s point of view. It shares this with blaxploitation cinema. Blaxploitation persistently addressed issues of ghettoised black communities (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971), Superfly (1972), Coffy (1973)) and the drugs, crime and gangs that exist in them. These films tended to focus on the underdog, who were tricksters, setting traps in order to take vengeance, escape trouble or get what they want. In these films we meet characters like Sweetback, who kills two corrupt cops and goes on the run, laying traps for those following him; Priest (Superfly), a cocaine dealer who tricks police and criminals to make and keep his money; Coffy, a nurse who, after her sister is hospitalised due to a drug overdose, decides to enact justice against the entire drug cartel by playing roles, using her sexuality and her cunning, switching drug stashes and turning criminals against criminals. Each character is not unlike the ultimate trickster, Brother Rabbit.
The animated sections of the film tell the story of Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear and Preacher Fox in Bakshi’s own unique animated style. If Disney’s Brer Rabbit had appeared cute and loveable, Bakshi’s characters are exaggerative, crude and sometimes grotesque. Likewise the slapstick violence is bloody and graphic. Walt Disney films have often been criticized for their use of racial caricature. Maybe one of the most famous is the black crows in Dumbo (1941), who appear with African-American accents and mannerisms. If this causes some offence, it seems not to be the overriding concern for Ralph Bakshi, who replicates and exaggerates the motif in Fritz the Cat.
In fact, on the surface Bakshi’s animations often appear more exaggerated, more grotesque, and potentially more offensive. What is whimsical and comical caricature in Disney, becomes a mixture of exaggerative satire, surrealist political commentary and grotesque realism. It is almost as if, in order to confront us with the reality Disney films deny, Bakshi has to go further. Unlike the Disney film, Coonskin is intent on making us face racist prejudices and assumptions. If in Disney films, racial caricatures can easily pass us by, Bakshi’s films make us all too aware of racial politics.
The animation follows Brother Rabbit and his associates Brother Bear and Brother Fox. In financial desperation they have had to sell their house to a city slicker, who has turned it into a pleasure house. Rabbit, Fox and Bear return to the house to pick up their money from him. The white sheriff who runs the town is also heading in the same direction. “All this niggers’ town has to offer is some cheap booze and some women,” he says as he heads for the pleasure house. However, finding his daughter working there, he draws a gun, only to receive a knife in his chest from Brother Rabbit.
Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear and Preacher Fox run to the car. The trio need to leave town, and the obvious place to head to is Harlem. When they arrive in Harlem, it is marred with poverty: Old man bones hunts through the trash, picking out things that whites have thrown out; Pearl tells the story of her failed relationship with Malcolm the cockroach who left her because he said, “It’s always cold here and a few scraps found at your table ain’t as good as the garbage down town. And there ain’t no fear of the whole damn building falling down on our heads or junkies crushing you under foot.” Meanwhile, a white Miss America, naked, but wrapped in the American flag, has blacks killed for making sexual advances towards her. The vision of America is one of poverty, injustice and exploitation, dished out against America’s social and economic outcasts.
The trio arrive in Harlem and meet another problem: The black Jesus! Black Jesus is part revolutionary, part religious leader and part nightclub sensation. Black Jesus, we are told, gives people the power to kill whites. The indiscriminate hatred of whites continually rears throughout the film. Preacher Fox, at one point tells us that “Killing crackers, I guess that is okay any day.” At another point, the black Jesus shoots images of John Wayne, Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon. Black Jesus, however, it not a real revolutionary. His aim is purely to make money. Black Jesus and his “revolutionaries” do not offer a genuine emancipatory revolution, but manipulate racial tensions and hatred to make a quick buck.
The difference between racial emancipation and a race war should not be understated. The hatred of whites, far from signalling racial emancipation, often divides white and black workers, exacerbates tensions between them and diverts their attention away from a system that harms them both. The trio are not seduced. They see through Black Jesus’ pseudo-revolutionary façade and start making trouble for him. But this doesn’t mean that the trio are real revolutionaries. Brother Rabbit tells his accomplices that he is “tired of trying to segregate, integrate and masturbate anymore.” It is in this respect that neither Brother Rabbit or Black Jesus are the genuine politically subversive tricksters. Their tricks are there to serve their self-interest.
It is not long before Black Jesus catches up with Brother Rabbit. Using the classic Brer Rabbit-reverse psychology technique (“Please don’t throw me out that window ledge…”), Brother Rabbit escapes, then returns with Brother Bear and shoots Black Jesus dead. With Black Jesus gone, Brother Rabbit attempts to take over the racket in Harlem. He tells the gangster community, “Black racket money stays in Harlem, no more Mafia, police, mayors, senators, judges or presidents. It’s our money up here lets keep it.” He, however, has two barriers that he must first overcome before he can run the rackets in Harlem. The first is a cop called Mannigan, the second is the Mafia. Brother Rabbit must prove himself.
Mannigan is a corrupt and racist cop who takes a cut of the drugs and prostitution services in Harlem. Whilst he makes money off crime in the black community, he has very little respect for this community. “Yeah I don’t wash when I go up town, that’s for sure.” he says. “Niggers ain’t worth washing fa’.” He has two sidekicks, one of whom is black, but is wealthy and shares equal disdain for niggers: “Hey, you should have seen this place I bought in Levittown. There isn’t a nigger for forty miles,” he says.
When the three of them turn up in Harlem they find that their cut is no longer there. The rabbit has already taken it. Searching out the Rabbit, Mannigan finds himself alone in a club with a stripper. It is a trap! Before he has time to realise he finds himself dragged up, blacked up and drugged up. Finding his colleague dead he shoots into the air frantically. The police surround him and when he (albeit unintentionally) shoots at them, they shoot him dead.
His second target is the Mafia which is run by the Godfather, a grotesque, de-glamorised version of Marlon Brando’s character. The Mafia family, however, have already heard of Brother Rabbit and attempt to use Preacher Fox and Brother Bear to get to him. They set up a boxing match to capture the rabbit, but Brother Rabbit is ahead of them and creates a tar baby version of himself. The Mafia fall for his trap and each find themselves stuck in the tar baby trap unable to escape. Brother Rabbit is successful and takes over Harlem.
Blaxploitation and the Trickster
Whilst Coonskin breaks with the problematic Remus character, the Rabbit brings issues of his own. The trickster, whilst no subservient, does not necessarily represent a genuine opposition to oppression. In Coonskin, the poverty of Harlem leads not in the genuine attempt to achieve justice and equality, but in the use of revolutionary ideas by scam artists, the desire to indiscriminately kill whites, black crime against the black community, the black middle-class’ rejection of the black underclass and bigoted corrupt white cops who feed off injustice. It is in this setting that the trickster emerges, not as an emancipator, but as a self-interested individual who feeds off tensions for his own ends. The film demonstrates how poverty and oppression creates, not the “emancipated” and “empowered” heroes of Disney movies, but instead creates social divides, hatred and character flaws born out of a need for survival.
Thus, whilst vehemently attacking racism, Bakshi is simultaneously critiquing the tensions and non-revolutionary power struggles that emerge in ghettoised life. In this context, Coonskin attempts to address the manner in which radical and revolutionary politics can be appropriated and misused. This theme, of course, runs throughout blaxploitation itself. In The Black Godfather, the black Godfather (J.J.) wants Tony, the white Mafia boss, out of his area. However, he needs the support of the “revolutionaries” to do this and meets with Diablo, a political militant, to garner support. The conversation between them is interesting as it demonstrates the tensions between the revolutionary left and the emerging bourgeois libertarianism. Diablo is not convinced. “The essence of our struggle is independence,” he tells J.J. “We don’t like slave masters, no matter what colour they are.”
Diablo’s idealism only seems to make J.J. more impassioned. “Look, I’m not going to justify corruption to you,” he says. “It’s always been here and it always will be. What I am rapping to you about is power, baby. I know what I am. And right or wrong people look up to me because they think I am a success. I’ve got what they’ve always wanted: money! Without it you’re nothing. Money buys dignity, poverty is a crime. Nobody asked you where you got your dollar, they ask you do you have it. That idealistic shit don’t pay your rent.”
It is interesting to note how J.J.’s politics have more in common with the libertarianism of Ayn Rand, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan than the civil rights movements. In this sense, the trickster is not so much a militant tactically overcoming his master in the fight for independence, justice and equality, but the venture capitalist who buys dignity via money. J.J.’s sentiments are echoed in the civil rights politician from Coffy, who turns out to be collaborating with corrupt police and taking his cut of the drug racket. When asked where his alliances lie, he tells the cops, “For Christ sake, black, brown or yellow, I’m in it for the green, the green buck.” His words suggest that money, to a large extent, is colour blind.
This claim mirrors Diablo’s belief that it doesn’t matter what colour the slave master is. Money might not care what colour the hand that spends it is, but nor does it care who it crushes and who it saves. Money does not discriminate, it oppresses indiscriminately. Tricksters, at their worst, are simply yet another oppressor, out to use the situation to their advantage.
Tricksters, at their best, genuinely subvert, challenge and confront. They make genuine emancipation possible or they, at least, help us perceive the brutality and injustice in the world. In this respect, Bakshi himself is a trickster. Bakshi appropriates racist iconography, and uses it to provoke and confront difficult issues surrounding racism. He turns Disney on its head, revealing what was essentially denied. In this respect, Bakshi stands with the best of blaxploitation.
Unlike Disney films, blaxploitation doesn’t start with the façade of equality in an unequal world. The films are often violent, bold and confrontational. For example, Sweetback opens with the quote “Sire, these lines are not a homage to brutality that the artist has invented, but a hymn to reality,” and follows this with, “This Film is dedicated to all the brothers and sisters who have had enough of the Man.” This is blaxploitation at its best: On the one hand, its demand is not brutality for its own sake, but reality. On the other hand it calls for a united opposition to authority and oppression (the Man). In this respect it transcends the mere exploitation flick, which simply uses shock, horror, sex, violence and gore to bring the audience in. It produces, instead a commentary on the world.
Bakshi wanted to create something beyond a mere exploitation, something that had more to do with facing reality and challenging authority, than simply violence for thrills. It is in this respect that Bakshi seems somewhat critical of blaxploitation and claims that he wasn’t actually making a blaxploitation film at all.
So the truth of the matter is that I used the blaxploitation films. I wasn’t making fun of the blaxploitation films so much as I was using it to sell my political film.[xxvi]
In Bakshi’s mind the film is a political satire. In this respect, Bakshi attempts to confront us with the racism that underscores everyday life and which is covered over in a cinema obsessed by cute family fun, diversity and empowerment. Like many of the films lumped into the category of trash and exploitation, Coonskin is not so much pure exploitation, but an attempt to transcend it; to use exploitation tropes to comment on humanity, poverty and racism. What makes trash and exploitation genres exciting is that they often do precisely this. The merging, with carvinalesque showmanship, of controversy, brutality and bad taste may, at times, manifest as a kind of reactionary sideshow distraction, but at best it allows us to address questions and issues in a manner that is far more honest than the Disneyland conglomeration of family fun, multiculturalist diversity and reactionary conservatism.
In this respect, the history of trash and exploitation cinema could be described as trickster cinema. In this respect, trickster cinema mirrors that of the trickster character themselves; at its worst it is reactionary cinema, which uses shock and sensationalism to make a quick buck, but at its best it is radical and subversive. In contrast, the history of Disney films could be described as a tradition of Remusification. In the hands of the Disney corporation, a tale of mass genocide becomes a tale of interracial love (Pocahontas 1995), a Dickens tale of child poverty and exploitation becomes a tale of cute cats and dogs and how rich and poor can unite to fight corrupt capitalists (Oliver and Company, 1988) and a tale set on a plantation can become a tale of multicultural harmony (Song of the South).
Malcolm X, with allusions to Brer Rabbit, tells us that the white conservatives don’t hide their racism. “They are like wolves; they show their teeth in a snarl that keeps the Negro always aware of where he stands with them. But the white liberals are foxes, who also show their teeth to the Negro but pretend that they are smiling. The white liberals are more dangerous than the conservatives; they lure the Negro, and as the Negro runs from the growling wolf, he flees into the open jaws of the “smiling” fox.”[xxvii]
Of course, many charges can, and have, been made against this quote, but we should not miss a genuine kernel of truth: Multicultural politeness is, itself, often reactionary. Disney films are like smiling foxes, who frame Brer Rabbit in the cutesy façade of multicultural togetherness, but it is a trap. The cunning fox plasters itself with multicultural glee to hide its bigotry beneath.
Trickster Cinema, at its best, works to expose this. It serves to break through the politically correct Disney façade and make radically honest, and maybe emancipatory subversion, possible.
Originally published in One+One: Filmmakers Journal, Issue 12, Vol 1. Special Issue “Trash, Exploitation and Cult”. November 2015
[i] Joel Chandler Harris, New Stories of the Old Platation (Sourced at http://archive.org/stream/ toldbyuncleremus00harr/toldbyuncleremus00harr_ djvu.txt)
[ii] Maurice Rapf was a screenplay writer and communist, who was blacklisted in the McCarthy era. Walt Disney asked Rapf to help rewrite the original script of Songs of the South which Walt Disney, himself, believed to be potentially anti-black. According to Rapf, Disney hired him because he was “against ‘Uncle Tomism’” and “a radical.” Unfortunately Rapf was unable to exert a positive effect on the script and was fired as a result of differences with the original writer. For more on the controversies which framed the making of Song of the South see Kim Korkis, Who is afraid of Song of the South and other Forbidden Disney Stories. (Theme Park Press: Florida. 2012.
[iii] Maurice Rapf quoted in Kim Korkis, Who is afraid of Song of the South and other Forbidden Disney Stories. (Theme Park Press: Florida. 2012.) p.20
[iv] Ralph Bakshi interviewed in Reflections on Blaxploitation: Actors and Directors Speak edited by David Walker, Andrew J. Rausch and Chris Watson (Maryland: Scarecrow Press Inc. 2009) p.2
[v] Bernard Wolfe, “Uncle Remus & the Malevolent Rabbit” in Mother Wit From the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore. Edited by Alan Dundes. (University of Mississipi. 1973/1981) p. 536
[vi] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Mask. (London: Pluto Press. 2008) p.134
[vii] Joel Chandler Harris, Uncle Remus, his Songs and his Sayings. (Kindle Books) Location 34
[viii] Ibid Location 120
[ix] Wolfe, “Uncle Remus & the Malevolent Rabbit” p531
[x] Maurice Rapf, for example, proposed something different. He tells us, “My script was terrible, I’ve looked at it since. The script is just as racist as the film, although there is a lot that is different. Disney didn’t make it clear that the film wasn’t about slavery and that it was set during Reconstruction. In my script, I had the white family poverty-stricken. And that’s a lot different from what you see on the screen. Their house in the film is immaculate, very white -it’s a white mansion on a plantation. The women wear different dresses every time you look at them. I indicated in my script very clearly that they should be threadbare because they lost the war, also the whole reason for the father leaving the kid in the first place is very different in the final script from mine. In mine he leaves because they haven’t got enough money to pay the people who are working there. He goes to Atlanta to get some money so he can pay the blacks who work on the farm. That’s different. He even says [in Rapf’s script], “We gotta pay these people. They’re not slaves.” So when Remus is told he can’t read any more stories to the boy. He picks up his things. He’s mad. He is not going to get the father, he’s leaving. He says, “I’m a freeman; I don’t have to take this.” (Kim Korkis, Who is afraid of Song of the South and other Forbidden Disney Stories. p.19-20)
[xi] Frederick Douglas quoted in Kim Korkis, Who is afraid of Song of the South. p.48.
[xii] See Bradley Tuck, Just a spoonful of sugar… The Dialectics of Work and Play in Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins (One+One Filmmakers Journal. Issue 6. 01/04/2011)
[xiii] Douglas Brode, Multiculturalism and the Mouse: Race and Sex in Disney Entertainment. (Austin: University of Texas Press. 2005) p.54-55
[xiv] Jean Jacques Rousseau, A Discourse of the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Among Mankind. (Kindle) Location 135
[xv] Rousseau, A Discourse of the Origin and Foundation of Inequality Location 139
[xvi] Jean Jacques Rousseau, “The Social Contract” in The Social Contract and First and Second Discourses. Edited by Gita May, Robert N. Bellah, David Bromwich and Conor Cruse O’Brian (New Haven, Yale University Press. 2002) p.189
[xviii] Brode, Multiculturalism and the Mouse. p.57
[xix] See Brode, Multiculturalism and the Mouse. p.59
[xx] Korkis, Who is afraid of Song of the South. p. 20
[xxi] Wolfe, “Uncle Remus & the Malevolent Rabbit” p536.
[xxii] Brode, Multiculturalism and the Mouse. p.61
[xxiii] The wikipedia page notes accusations of anti-Semitism and racism levelled at Disney and Disney films, and mentions specifically “Mickey’s Mellerdrammer, in which Mickey Mouse dresses in blackface; the “black” bird in the short Who Killed Cock Robbin; Sunflower, the half donkey/half black centaurette with a watermelon in Fantasia; the feature film Song of the South; the Indians in Peter Pan; and the crows in Dumbo.” It also, however, goes on to quote Neil Gambler saying “‘Walt Disney was no racist,[…] He never, either publicly or privately, made disparaging remarks about blacks or asserted white superiority. Like most white Americans of his generation, however, he was racially insensitive.’” see Wikipedia page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walt_ Disney#cite_ref-122 (sourced 05/10/2013)
[xxiv] Brode, Multiculturalism and the Mouse. p.59
[xxv] Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/wilde-oscar/soul-man/ p. 59
[xxvi] Bakshi Interviewed in Reflections on Blaxploitation p.3
[xxvii] Malcolm X, “White Liberals” Track 9 on Malcolm X: The Best of His Speeches (Audio). (Stardust Records 2007) p.247 247