In 1975 director Ralph Bakshi produced his third animated feature, Coonskin. By this time Bakshi was well acquainted with controversy and harsh critique, after his debut animated feature Fritz the Cat, which fallows the exploits of the sex obsessed feline created by underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, became the first animated film to receive an X rating from the MPAA. His second animated feature, Heavy Traffic, a gritty urban tale of a cartoonist’s struggle to produce comics and animated films amidst the harsh city seemingly conspiring against him, received the same upon its initial release.
Coonskin further continued in the tradition implemented in his previous effort “Heavy Traffic”. Where Bakshi fused live-action footage, with animation; often combining the two simultaneously on screen. Like his two previous efforts, Coonskin was ripe with social commentary and satire, offering a brutally honest portrayal of the social inequalities rampant in a supposed “civilized society”.
After a brief animated monologue and musical title sequence sung by Scatman Crothers, Coonskin begins in live-action as the central characters Sampson (Barry White), and Preacherman (Charles Gordone) hurriedly race to the aid of their friend Randy (Phillip Michael Thomas), their hope being to provide a getaway for Randy’s forthcoming attempt to escape from prison. As they speed toward their destination, the two friends stumble upon a police roadblock, forcing them into a shootout, and slowing their pace considerably.
Meanwhile Randy waits on the outskirts of the inner prison walls, with fellow escapee “pappy” (Crothers). While they wait Pappy claims to of known three guys, just like Randy and his friends. Reluctantly Randy listens as Pappy begins telling of the three friends: Brother Rabbit (voiced by Thomas), Brother Bear (White), and Preacher Fox (Gordone). The film then transcends into animation as the story begins to unfold…
After a skirmish with local law authorities, Brother Rabbit, Bear and Fox decided to head toward Harlem “Home to all Black Men”. Upon their arrival the friends find themselves severely disappointed, Harlem is rundown, and being exploited by a conman dubbing himself “Simple Savior”, the cousin of Black Jesus. Through a flamboyant and misleading stage performance, Savior convinces his followers to donate to his cause, which supposedly aids in strengthening the fight to “kill all whites”.
Seeing through Saviors selfish ploy to make himself richer, while lining the pockets of the higher ups outside of Harlem, Rabbit and company begin to stir up trouble by stealing the donated money, making a quick exit, only later to purposely arrive at the Saviors own club. Here Fox abruptly leaves Rabbit and Bear to walk a lady home and out of harms way, as Rabbit and Bear move in on Savior and his men, eventually slaying Savior.
Rabbit and Bear then take the advantage of an opportunity at Saviors funeral, to announce to Saviors former crew that he is taking over all operations. Saviors men readily agree to serve Rabbit under the stipulation that he rid them of a corrupt police officer, and the Mafia syndicate of which he serves. All while making clear it clear, that if Rabbit fails to kill the officer and overseeing Mafia, he himself with be killed in their stead.
Not only was the subject matter of Coonskin consider controversial at the time of its release, it was publicly condemned by the Congress of Racial Equality, spearheaded by figurehead Al Sharpton. Unsurprisingly no one from the “CORE” had actually seen the film, making their intentions speculative, and their political showboating all the more apparent. I find this only further supported, with the NAACP supporting the film in 1975, describing it as “a difficult satire”. In addition to the controversy, Coonskin also received a harsh critical reaction. A review published in The Village Voice labeled the film "The product of a crippled hand and a paralyzed mind."
While the story is entertaining enough in its own right; it’s clearly intended to be a vehicle for a more important message. Bakshi pushes his critique while utilizing a variety of African American cultural references, through the medium of satirical commentary; he intertwines racial stereotypes, Blaxploitaton and the popular culture of the era.
Partially what makes Coonskin successful, unlike other peachier efforts in like, is Bakshi's ability to show things for what they are with a raw ferocity. Instead of pushing an idealized society, subsequently cramming his own agenda down the viewer’s throat, he presents the gritty reality, in a highly stylized and satirical manor, forcing no resolution. It’s up to us as a people to decide what is right and wrong, how we want to live, and what we will and won’t allow. No one can make the decision for us, nor would a solution come easily.
Social commentary aside, the film is just damn entertaining. Surprisingly well animated, considering the low production values. The visuals are stimulating, with the soundtrack, the opening song entitled; "Ah'm a Nigger Man" (written by Bakshi and Scatman), especially, well suited, poignant and lively. Bakshi’s mixture of animation and live-action works well here, with the scenes intermingled amongst the two flowing nicely. The characters, purposely cliché, are likeable, at least as far as white hating Honky killers go.
Obviously this isn’t a children’s film, nor should it be presented to those of a weaker tolerance for realism. Coonskin pulls no punches; it’s violent, sexually abrasive, and critical of an inept society wreaking social disharmony.
Highly recommended to the open-minded; niggers and honkies alike.