Tag Archives: Racism

CAPSULE: COONSKIN (1974)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Philip Michael Thomas, Barry White, Charles Gordone

PLOT: Samson and Preacherman head out on an all-night drive to spring Pappy and Randy from prison; while waiting outside the prison wall, Pappy regales them with the tale of how Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear, and Preacher Fox take Harlem over from the corrupt NYPD and racist Mafiosi.

COMMENTS: Many movies fall into the “they don’t make ’em like they used to” category; Coonskin earns a “there’s is no way they could make this these days” rating. Rarely have I seen a movie filled with so much vitriol, much less an animated film.

Ralph Bakshi is, for lack of a better phrase, altogether something else: an immigrant from Palestine who jammed his fingers on the crackling pulse of American racial discord. Bakshi not only directed and wrote Coonskin, but also penned the lyrics for the eye-wateringly uncomfortable opening song, “Ah’m a Niggerman”–performed masterfully by Scatman Crothers in profile over the opening credits. While Ralph Bakshi may have improved as an animator and storyteller afterwards, in Coonskin he is at his most impressively polemical.

Taking obvious (and unashamed) inspiration from the “Uncle Remus” stories (collected in the late 19th-century by another interloper into Black culture, Joel Chandler Harris), Bakshi sets up a jailbreak framing story. Preacherman (Charles Gordone) and Samson (Barry White) have until dawn to high-tail their Chrysler to the prison holding their friend Randy (Philip Michael Thomas), who awaits them–accompanied by fellow escapee, Pappy (Scat Man Crothers)–at the base of the prison wall. To pass the time, Pappy tells a story about a trio of enterprising Black fellows from Kansas who migrate to Harlem, a supposed Black meccah, to shake off the hayseed racists in their hometown. Once in Harlem they’re disillusioned by faux-militant Black preachers, intimidated by the grotesques of the New York City police department, and harried by a vicious Mafia godfather. Throughout, Miss America cruelly teases, taunts, and tramples on a Black Everyman.

Coonskin is a visually jarring experience, as mid-’70s New York City is overlaid with Warner Brothers’-styled animation and antics. A nasty, bloody bar fight pitting Brothers Rabbit, Bear, and Fox against another Black gang of extortionist thugs has its zany qualities, accompanied by sound effects lifted straight from Looney Toons. There’s an awkward encounter when Brother Bear and his Black lady-friend are approached by two (live-action) whiteys who are just darn pleased that the establishment’s owners have finally allowed Blacks–with their “colorful dress” and everything–into the formerly whites-only restaurant. Visual gags abound during cemetery scenes. And every single stereotype is pushed to the absolute maximum in animation.

The narrative framing device nicely anchors the surreal trips and diversions through which Bakshi drags the viewer. All the vocal (and physical) acting is spot-on, with a genuine feel to it–though I must emphasize that when Bakshi is making a point, the performances have a genuine stereotype feel. Malevolent flights of animated fantasy involving violent hallucinations, exploitative symbolism, and even demonic undertones mix liberally with the social commentary. But Bakshi’s intentions are clear: the 1987 release came with the warning, “This film offends everybody.” Any Blacks, whites, gays, Jews, Italian-Americans, and cops take note: this is hard stuff. This is angry stuff. And Coonskin doesn’t care what you think.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Bakshi] seems a little at sea in Coonskin, and his episodes don’t really add up to a coherent whole, but the movie’s filled with vitality and visual exuberance we get a sense of life from the film that’s all the more absorbing because ‘cartoons’ aren’t supposed to seem ‘real’.” -Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Caleb Moss, who argued “throw in some dazzling hallucination sequences, absurdly grotesque caricatures of classic depictions of African-Americans in pop-culture, a subterranean Mafia organization with a little clown hit-man, an obscenely hilarious “romance” scene involving Ms. America, and hell, even an excessively obese con-man posing as a negro messiah shooting at portraits of Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon while hoisted in mid-air, among other things that I shall not spoil, and you got one peculiarly odd curiosity of an animated film in your hands.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

347. GOODBYE UNCLE TOM (1971)

Addio Zio Tom; AKA Farewell Uncle Tom

“If you want to be fully convinced of the abominations of slavery, go on a southern plantation, and call yourself a negro trader. Then there will be no concealment; and you will see and hear things that will seem to you impossible among human beings with immortal souls.”–Harriet Ann Jacobs, “Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

DIRECTED BY: ,

FEATURING: Uncredited actors, mostly Haitian

PLOT: A helicopter flies over a cotton field being worked by slaves in the antebellum south; two unseen men enter a plantation, and the matron of the family introduces them as “Italian journalists” performing an “inquest” into slavery. The time-traveling documentarians then take their camera into a slave ship, follow a slave trader, tour various plantations and slave auctions, and encounter Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Makepeace Thackeray, among other adventures. In a flash-forward, an African-American reads “The Confessions of Nat Turner” on the beach and imagines black militants breaking into white households and killing all the inhabitants with axes.

Still from Goodbye Uncle Tom (1972)
BACKGROUND:

  • In the 1960s and pioneered what came to be known as the “mondo” film (after the title of their first movie, 1962’s Mondo Cane [Dog’s World]). These “shockumentaries” documented bizarre behavior around the world, with a heavy emphasis on sex and violence: Cane contained scenes of Asians eating dogs and elderly people passing away in Singapore’s “death hotel.” Their final contribution to the genre was 1966’s Africa Addio, which chronicled turmoil in post-colonial Africa and included several scenes of political prisoners being summarily executed by paramilitary squads (along with footage of slaughtered hippos and elephants). Africa Addio was extremely controversial, and Jacopetti and Prosperi were even accused of racism for making it. Goodbye Uncle Tom, their first fictional film, was a response to those accusations: they wanted to make a movie that was clearly and unambiguously anti-racist, and chose American slavery as their subject.
  • The movie was mainly shot in Haiti, with some locations in the United States, after Brazil and several other countries refused to allow Jacopetti and Prosperi to shoot there due to their bad reputation. Production lasted for two years.
  • The film was recut several times for different markets; in its original American release, the Nat Turner-inspired coda was removed as too incendiary, fearing it might spark copycat murders or riots. (Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke agreed, theorizing that the movie was a Jewish conspiracy to incite a race war.)
  • The film was a financial and critical flop.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Your eye may be stunned by the acres upon acres of nude African flesh in the crowd scenes. We chose to focus on the final image, however; the modern black doctor squeezing the white boy’s beach ball until it pops, his fingers straining with a pent-up century’s worth of tension and rage, grinning maniacally.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Plantation helicopter; virgin seductress; afro-massacre

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: This strange and audacious condemnation of American slavery, made by controversial Italian shockumentarians, is equal parts outrage and exploitation, with a side of absurdity. A time-traveling mockumentary full of rape, degradation, gore, and ambiguous moral outrage, Goodbye Uncle Tom is almost weirder in its conception and backstory than its execution.


An edited trailer for Goodbye Uncle Tom

COMMENTS: Beginning with a scene of documentarians flying their Continue reading 347. GOODBYE UNCLE TOM (1971)

293. SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971)

“From the very beginning, back in 1957, people were always commenting on my films being a little weird in subject matter, and the angles I used, and the superimpositions and things like that.  Me, I figured that it came from the fact that I was self-taught and missed the technological colonization of the white aesthetic. Anyhow, back then everybody just thought I was crazy.”–Melvin Van Peebles, “The Real Deal: What It Was... Is”

DIRECTED BY: Melvin Van Peebles

FEATURING: Melvin Van Peebles, Simon Chuckster, John Gallaghan

PLOT: An African American boy grows to manhood in a brothel, where he is nicknamed “Sweetback” for his sexual prowess and taught to perform in live sex shows when he reaches adulthood. One night two detectives perform a fake arrest on Sweetback as part of a political scheme; but when they beat a black activist while Sweetback watches, he beats the two policemen into a coma in a fit a righteous rage. The bulk of the film follows the fugitive as he makes his way toward the Mexican border on foot, staying one step ahead of the cops as his legend grows within the black community.

Stillfrom Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song (1971)

BACKGROUND:

  • Melvin Van Peebles’ personal history is colorful, to say the least. He began his career making short films, and one feature, in France. On the strength of these Columbia Pictures invited him to direct a feature film. His first Hollywood feature, the racial satire Watermelon Man, was a small hit. Columbia offered him a three picture deal, but he chose to make Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song instead.
  • Van Peebles says that he played the role himself because he couldn’t find an established black actor willing to take it due to the fact that they pay was so low and Sweetback only has six lines of dialogue in the film.
  • Van Peebles says he actually had sex with the actresses while shooting film’s sex scenes, and contracted gonorrhea from one. He says he applied to the director’s guild for compensation and that they were so surprised by the claim that they paid him. He then used the money to buy more film.
  • The soundtrack was written by Van Peebles and performed by a pre-fame Earth, Wind and Fire, the same year their debut album. The check bounced.
  • Van Peebles ran out of money while filming Sweetback and begged investors to help him finish the movie. Finally, Bill Cosby loaned him $50,000, interest-free, to finish the movie. The film went on to gross $4.1 million at the box office and eventually earning more than $10 million. Van Peebles was able to keep all the profits himself.
  • Sweetback was rated X by the MPAA and prints were often screened with up to 9 minutes of sex removed, inspiring Van Peebles to promote the movie with the sensational (but technically accurate) tagline, “Rated X by an all-white jury!”
  • The remarkable story behind the making of Sweetback is told in the fictionalized 2003 film Baadasssss!, written, directed by and starring Van Peebles’ son Mario. Mario had also played Sweetback as a boy in Baadassss Song, where he was pressured into performing a sex scene with an adult actress.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Sweetback running. Runner-up: Sweetback sprinting. We also considered Sweetback loping, Sweetback jogging, and Sweetback trotting.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Sex will make you a man; the Good Dyke Fairy Godmother; lizard lunch

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD Take a radical experimental filmmaker with narcissistic tendencies, give him $150,000 dollars (in 1971 money) and an amateur cast and crew, give him carte blanche to make a Black Power film with lots of sex scenes, and Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is the result. You’d think it was a deconstructionist version of a blaxploitation film, except that it was made before the blaxploitation formula existed.

Original trailer for Sweet Sweetback’s Baadassss Song

COMMENTS: In 1971 the Civil Rights movement was almost two Continue reading 293. SWEET SWEETBACK’S BAADASSSSS SONG (1971)

233. DEATH BY HANGING (1968)

Koshikei

“You mustn’t think our film is just labored theorizing. The officials’ attempts to convince R that he is R are amusing and bizarre. I think it’s a spot-on depiction of all us Japanese in all our amusing bizarreness.”–Nagisa Ôshima

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Yung-Do Yun, Fumio Watanabe, , Akiko Koyama

PLOT: After the failed execution of a Japanese-Korean double murderer, various state functionaries are at a loss as how to proceed when the criminal’s body refuses to die. Going to increasingly outlandish lengths to remind the convict of why he is there and condemned, the prison’s officials inadvertently explore the nature of crime, nationality, and culpability. Eventually a young woman is introduced to the group, and the captors decide to get drunk.

Still from Death by Hanging (1968)

BACKGROUND:

  • The criminal in Death By Hanging is based on Ri Chin’u, who also murdered two Japanese school girls. In addition to his crimes, Ri Chin’u gained a degree of fame for his extensive writings while in prison.
  • Much of the dialogue between R and his “sister” is taken from actual correspondences between Ri Chin’u and a Korean journalist.
  • Death by Hanging came during Ôshima‘s most experimental period, made back-to-back with the Certified Weird satire Japanese Summer: Double Suicide. Like most of Ôshima‘s mid-to-late 1960s work, Hanging was initially ignored in America, not even screening for the first time until 1974 and not officially reaching home video until 2016.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The movie is stuffed to the gills with claustrophobic shots of slapstick fused with philosophy, none more so than the penultimate scene: an unlikely combination of prison officials getting hammered around a “table” while the convict “R” and his (probably imaginary) sister consider the nature of guilt. The drinkers take turns discussing how they came to this kind of work while R, reclining with the young woman beneath a Japanese flag, comes to the conclusion that though he committed his crimes, he is not responsible for them.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Stubborn corpse; rape re-enactment; hallucination participation

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Death By Hanging starts with a very traditional documentary approach, including narration reeling off statistics and some expository shots of a nondescript execution facility in a prison compound. Quickly, however, the aura of formality disintegrates as the hapless officials endeavor in vain to make sense of the film’s central conceit: a young convict refusing to die. Their efforts to restore his memory and edge him toward accountability grow desperate and extreme until a point is reached where everyone involved in the process begins to believe in the unreal.


Original trailer for Death by Hanging

COMMENTS: While most leftist directors merely point a shotgun at Continue reading 233. DEATH BY HANGING (1968)

CAPSULE: THE THING WITH TWO HEADS (1972)

DIRECTED BY: Lee Frost

FEATURING: , Rosey Grier, Don Marshall

PLOT:  An elderly, racist, but brilliant doctor on the brink of death figures out a way to keep himself alive through the world’s first head transplant; however, he did not expect to wake up from surgery attached to the body of an African American convict!

Still from The Thing with Two Heads (1972)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite the brazenly irrational subject matter, The Thing With Two Heads wears its heart on its sleeve and actually feels rather grounded, even with a two-headed monster on screen for most of the running time. Wacky, sure. Weird? Maybe not.

COMMENTS: Any film fan would be forgiven for being simultaneously amused and repulsed by the title and the concept of The Thing With Two Heads. It sounds ridiculous, and it very much is ridiculous: a low-budget foray into pseudo-science that contains all the hallmarks of classic exploitation fare, unfortunately including the dire production values and clunky, distracting dialogue.

That being said, at times the film is genuinely fun, no more so than during its opening portion in which we follow the adventures of a two-headed gorilla, surgically created by Maxwell Kirshner (played by Oscar-winner Ray Milland—the casting may very well be the weirdest thing about the film). Watching a gorilla tear through a lovely upper class neighborhood before ripping up a mom and pop convenience store just to get his hands on some bananas would be a highlight in any film. Strangely, even though the film looks absolutely terrible (think Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song), the effects with the gorilla suit, and those during the head transplant scene, are surprisingly potent, gruesome enough to make you squirm as the direction refuses to cut away, undeterred by the budget constraints that the rest of the film suffers from.

The Thing With Two Heads is certainly a change from the norm, but once it gets rolling, seeing a mixed-race two-headed creature talking about social prejudice begins to seem standard fare. In fact, the film plays everything so straight that it is difficult to tell whether you are watching an unintentional comedy that has missed its target as a serious social statement or a satire that isn’t particularly funny. Either way, the absurdity outweighs any message contained within the film, which seems more concerned with a 30 minute dirt bike escape than anything else; and, lets face it, Mad Max this is not. By the time the final tonal misstep arrives in a film full of inconsistencies it is difficult to tell whether you have had a good time or not; but, obviously, The Thing With Two Heads isn’t forgettable.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“[Greer is] willing to do anything to get another chance at life, so he volunteers for a weird medical experiment…. The most incredible thing in ‘The Thing with Two Heads’ is not the head transplant, however, but what happens next. Within hours after Milland’s head has been screwed on, the two-headed escapee is on a motorcycle and being chased by no less than 14 police cars. Every one of them is destroyed during the chase, a process that takes so long that seven, or even five, squad cars might have been enough.”–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

In the 1960s, producer Arthur P. Jacobs purchased screen rights to Pierre Boulle’s novel “Monkey Planet” for Twentieth Century Fox. It became Jacobs’ dream project, facing an uphill battle with skeptical executives. Not helping the producer’s cause was Boulle’s public statement calling “Monkey Planet” his worst novel. ((Boulle had previously written the novel “Bridge on the River Kwai” and received credit for the screenplay, but declined to show up for the Academy Award. The reason for the no-show was that Boulle did not write the script, but agreed to receive credit for the film’s back-listed writers.))

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) posterRod Serling and Michael Wilson co-wrote the screen adaptation for the original Planet of The Apes (1968). The script is far more “Twilight Zone” than Boulle. Jacobs wisely cast  in the lead role. Heston, who loved the script, was helpful in influencing studio heads to greenlight the project and to assign director Franklin J. Shaffner, whom the actor had worked with in the underrated The War Lord (1965).

Studio misgivings were laid aside when Planet of the Apes (1968) proved to be a monstrous success. Before Star Wars, Batman, etc, Planet of the Apes was the original blockbuster franchise, spawning four sequels, a short-lived television series, an animated series, and a comic book. The original film retains its classic pop status, despite revisionist opinions, usually by those who have not seen it and dismiss it as a cheesy byproduct of the sixties and seventies. Actually, it is science fiction cinema at its most preferable: the cinematic equivalent of Cracker Jacks with its prize being smart dumb fun amidst caramel popcorn and salty peanuts. Who, in all honesty, would find ‘s academic psychedelia 2001: A Space Odyssey, made the same year, as fun an experience as American icon Heston being put through Sterling’s pulp karma in the form of gorillas on horseback? Heston’s Col. Taylor, disdainful of mankind, is replete with character flaws, yet we root for him as he is catapulted through a physical and emotional nightmare, in which he is forced to do a philosophical about-face, only to learn in the end he was right all along. Heston’s physicality responds perfectly to Sterling’s blunt ironies.

It is the hippest performance of the actor’s career and one can understand his hesitancy regarding the sequel, Beneath The Planet Of The Apes (1970). Heston’s performance there amounts to a cameo, with James Franciscus filling in, albeit in a second-rate Heston imitation. Still, once past the unnecessary rehash of the first film, Beneath, in its innovative second half, proves to be the strangest, most underrated entry of the franchise. It is also the only sequel that retains the original’s flavor.

Escape From The Planet Of The Apes (1971), the best of the sequels, benefits from the quirky performances of Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowell. Writer Paul Dehn crafted an inventive, humor-laden narrative that delighted in seventies pop culture. Dehn, a noted film critic, drew on Rod Sterling’s original script draft for the first film, as well as Boulle’s novel in which Apes and humans coexist in a modern society. Escape‘s Sterling-esque first half gives way to Dehn’s pre-apocalyptic sensibilities and pop social commentary on racism and violence.

Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (1972) is Bazooka Bubble Gum Armageddon,especially in the unrated version found on home video. The slavery Continue reading ALFRED EAKER VS. THE SUMMER BLOCKBUSTERS: DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2014)

CAPSULE: HAIRSPRAY (1988)

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Leslie Ann Powers, Michael St. Gerard, Jerry Stiller, Colleen Fitzpatrick, , Sonny Bono, Shawn Thompson, Ruth Brown, Jo Ann Havrilla, Clayton Prince, , , John Waters

PLOT: A plus-sized teen dance sensation campaigns for “Miss Auto Show” and agitates for racial integration in 1963 Baltimore.

Still from Hairspray (1988)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: There’s just a whisper of the old Trash Trilogy weirdness left in John Waters’ 1960s teen nostalgia movie.

COMMENTS: The first of two films John Waters made in the late 1980s with PG ratings and mainstream aspirations, Hairspray indulges in personal nostalgia for the once-and-future transgressive director. The tone is what you might call mock-saccharine. Set in Baltimore at the dawn of racial integration, much of the action takes place on the set of the local teeny-bopper dance show, where wholesome white suburban youths swivel their hips each afternoon to rhythm and blues hits from black artists, while the darker-hued children wait for “Negro night” to strut their stuff. Hefty “hair hopper” Tracy Turnblad (Ricki Lake) gets her shot at a tryout and turns out to be a huge crowd favorite, earning the ire of previous teen queen bee Amber von Tussle and her showbiz parents.

Hairspray isn’t a profoundly weird movie, but neither is it a straightforward one. The level of reality here is about the same as a Hollywood musical (and the characters do break into spontaneous choreographed dance routines), and, although it deals with serious racial issues, there is no more real conflict or danger here than in an Annette Funicello beach movie. The pro-integration teens are innocent and righteous, and the rigid old guard eventually withers in the face of their enthusiasm, leaving the good guys to celebrate at a sock hop while the bad guys pout in the corner.

But, while there’s none of Waters’ trademark nastiness on display here, his arch view of our tacky culture still shines through, especially in the outrageous wardrobes (a roach-studded dress), hairstyles (Debbie Harry sports two different ‘dos that no human being has worn before or since), and decor (the doe-eyed thrift-shop family portraits on the walls of the von Tussle homestead). There’s also the novelty casting: novice actress Ricki Lake (cast because she was the only fat girl Waters could find who could dance), blues singer Ruth Brown, celebrities fallen on hard times like Sony Bono and Pia Zadora, pop stars like Debbie Harry (who’s great as a nasty stage mom) and the Cars’ Ric Ocasek (as a Baltimore beatnik), Waters regulars like Mink Stole, and, of course, Divine (both in and out of drag). If that’s not enough outrageousness for you, there’s also Waters himself running around as a psychologist with a hypno-wheel and a cattle prod, trying to shock Tracy’s best friend Penny Pingleton out of her forbidden “checkerboard” relationship with the black Seawood. Throw in a wino serenade, a trip to a special ed class reserved for “hairdo scofflaws,” and teens doing “vintage” dances like the Roach, the Tailfeather and the Bug, and you’ve got yourself a movie that’s odd without being alienating. This is one of Waters’ most beloved films (admittedly, by a different demographic than the one that worships at the idol of Pink Flamingos), because his genuine fondness for the era and its naively idealistic teenagers comes through on the screen. Even Debbie Harry’s asymmetrical flip hairdo can’t outshine that.

Hairspray was adapted into a Broadway musical in 2002, and from there into a second feature film in 2007 (with John Travolta, Michelle Pfeiffer, Amanda Bynes, and others). The musical remake made more money than the original, but I can’t say I know anyone who’s seen it. The original lands on Blu-ray this month.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“The actors are best when they avoid exaggeration and remain weirdly sincere. That way, they do nothing to break the vibrant, even hallucinogenic spell of Mr. Waters’s nostalgia.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)