Ralph Bakshi’s drive to break ground and create these crazy cartoons is something that makes everything he touches pretty great in some way, shape or form. Having said that, all of his movies have their flaws, whether they be production inflicted, monetary problems, or I heard when making Cool World he punched Frank Mancuso, Jr. (For those of you who are unfamiliar, this guy is the son of at the time Paramount Studios head Frank Mancuso, Sr.) in the face. Now that’s just a great Ralph Bakshi story.
That story can be found here
So what does all this have to do with Coonskin? Well, everything… this is undoubtedly Ralph Bakshi’s angriest film and the most ‘offensive’. He put everything into this one and it shows. Ralph Bakshi’s Coonskin may be his best film. It’s difficult to say that as a fan of his work because I could make strong arguments for some of his other films too. The film doesn’t filter itself at any turn, it’s set in its ways and is very unapologetic about it. The character designs are, for the most part, minstrel show-inspired; the situations are, although occasionally humorous and satirical, dealing with very real issues of its time-or any time for that matter-and in no way sugar coats what it has to say about those issues. Coonskin is a very thought-provoking film that just up front wants you to deal with what its presenting whether you enjoy it or not.
The film opens with two very caricatured African-American gents discussing people committing suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge and how out of 350 people, there were only two blacks… and one of them was pushed. The two proceed to cackle in hysterics and walk away. Cut to Scat Man Crothers singing Bakshi-penned lyrics “Ah’m the minstrel man/Ah’m the cleaning man/Ah’m the poor man/Ah’m the shoe shine man/Ah’m a Nigger Man/Watch me dance!” and now you’re probably starting to get why people either love or hate this movie. The film officially begins with live action segments involving Charles Gordone and Barry White attempting to aid Philip Thomas and Scat Man Crothers in a jailbreak. The actual animated bulk of the film is told as a story by Scat Man Crothers while the two await their getaway car and this is where things really get started.
“And one of them was pushed…”
Like Bakshi’s previous two directing efforts, Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic, Coonskin is much more interested in individual scenes and experiences than an overall focused plot… but I’d argue it works best here overall than in any other film he did in this style. The story of Brother Rabbit is the Uncle Remus tales depicted in Disney’s disowned Song of the South taken to the gritty 1970’s streets of a Blacksploitation film. Our trio of renegade anthropomorphic African-American characters becomes Harlem-bound after the bank sells their home to a guy who turns it into a whore house-in a particularly funny scene, the town’s sheriff drops by and discovers his own daughter tricking at this brothel.
Upon arriving in Harlem, they discover a Black Power con man who goes by the name of Simple Savior-who bares an uncanny resemblance to Ralph Bakshi and I’m almost certain Bakshi himself provides the voice of the character. Simple Savior puts on a big spectacle of a show with lasers, smoke, and lights where he dances around naked, gets hoisted up in the air on a harness, placed upon an illuminated cross and begins shooting photographs of John Wayne, Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon. Then he proceeds to tell all the black attendees of his rally to “Don the Revolution!” Pretty fucking ballsy for an animated film released in 1975, don’t you think?
If the images you are seeing in this review offend you, I would stay far away from this film.
I will stop with the plot synopsis here, I feel like revealing anymore would ruin the true Coonskin experience of seeing it and not knowing what’s coming next. To me, Ralph Bakshi’s dark cartoonish visions of life on the streets are always an unmitigated joy to behold. Out of all of them, this is the one that picks a specific target and sticks with it. While Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic both address racial issues on some level, neither of them completely focuses on these issues or comes close to reaching the heights of Coonskin.
Ralph Bakshi’s material was never as controversial, never as thought-provoking and never as anger-fueled as it is in Coonskin. Using the framework of the updated Uncle Remus stories, the sketch-like segments (which individually have a lot more to say than the film does as a whole)are hung up around this framework and push everything into an uncompromising cinematic drive-by like experience. The episodic nature of these segments as they come and go leave you jaded and bewildered by what you’re watching. It is not an easy pill to swallow but I can safely say you will not forget this film when it’s over.
I’m going to attempt to tone down the fanboyish nature this review has no doubt taken on given my bias when it comes to Bakshi and his work and try to be honest about this film’s flaws. There is after all no such thing as a flawless Ralph Bakshi film-you can definitely tell this was made on a budget. The animation quality fluctuates throughout, although I think almost everything here has a distinctive, almost Hanna Barbera-like, charm to it. The film’s backgrounds are live action for the most part. Although it does help to convey a little atmosphere at times, (personally I rather enjoy the lone trumpet player in the streets woefully playing smooth jazz) it doesn’t really convey the intended atmosphere as much as it should. Its less than seamless with the animation and a lot of the live action scene extras are unintentionally funny.
There are one or two moments where animated characters interact with the live action characters and it doesn’t work to say the least.
The other main thing I’d say this movie has working against it… if you’re unfamiliar with Ralph Bakshi’s work and how he has a tendency to be completely heavy-handed with his writing, I would suggest being cautious when approaching Coonskin for it is the most heavy-handed of all. This movie wants you to hear what it has to say and it doesn’t give a damn if you feel one way or the other about it. The plot and characters-while being developed in their own right-take a backseat to the satirical messages being thrown at its audience. What this film has to say and the issues that are addressed have been tackled over and over again since this movie, but keep in mind this was 1975. This is an animated feature film that not only addresses these issues but makes them the target of relentless attack.
It is far from a perfect film, but between the unapologetically passionate script, the charm of the animation, the balance of being satirical and shocking, and just the overall radical nature of this film, I’d say there’s a lot to admire here whether you agree with what the point of it all is or not. This was truly a labor of love, frustration, blood, sweat, and tears for Ralph and it definitely shows.
Take a Drink: if you didn’t listen to me, watched the film anyway and are now offended by what you’re watching.
Take a Drink: for gunfire.
Take a Drink: for drug use.
Take a Drink: for every Miss America sequence.
Do a Shot: for the ‘Malcom the Cockroach’ story
Do a Shot: for Madigan’s(the racist cop) demise