I shouldn’t say “shocking” from my own personal point of view. I don’t catch the vapors whenever somebody says “nigger.” But the N-word prohibitionists out there will find it hard to cope with Scatman Crothers singing a ditty called “Ah’m a Nigger Man.”
The following vidclip is the opening title sequence of “Coonskin,” a notorious 1975 film by cartoonist Ralph Bakshi. (Mr. Bakshi, a white man, also wrote the lyrics to “Ah’m a Nigger Man.”)
“Coonskin” sparked protests from the Congress of Racial Equality before it was even released. “They were booing at the titles,” Bakshi recalled of an early screening. This, in turn, frightened Paramount Pictures into dropping the movie like it was hot. (The film was re-titled “Street Fight” for home videocassette. It hasn’t yet been released on DVD.)
A re-imagining of the old Brer Rabbit folktales for a blaxploitation audience, “Coonskin” was a gleaming straight razor of a satire... cold, dangerous, skin-slicing.
One of the movie’s biggest fans is Darius James, a gifted satirist his own self. In his book “That’s Blaxploitation!,” James wrote this:
“In ‘Coonskin,’ Bakshi pukes the iconographic bile of a racist culture back in its stupid, bloated face, wipes his chin and smiles Dirty-Harry style. ‘Now deal with it...’ He subverts the context of Hollywood’s entire catalog of racist black iconography....”
Apparently he’s not the only black person who digs it. “Spike Lee is a big fan of ‘Coonskin,’ ” Bakshi told a journalist in 2003. “I get emails from new fans all the time on it; some can’t believe I’m white. ... [R]ap artists like it too.”
As for Scatman’s performance here, I love everything about it... the way he cuts his eyes to the camera a couple of times, the way he subverts certain lyrics, and basically the whole way he embodies a lost era of black music and black style. I think you’ll enjoy this...