CAPSULE: COONSKIN (1974)

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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.)

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