It's Ralph Bakshi's third movie after Fritz the Cat
and Heavy Traffic
and it makes them look like Disney lullabies. As the title suggests, it's tackling prejudice and black stereotypes. The way it's doing this is by charging head-on at them, screaming.
Was it controversial? You bet. The first thing you get in the movie is a song called "Ah'm a Niggerman", written by Bakshi (who's white) and performed by Scatman Crothers (who's black). It's deliberately based on the chants of black slaves on Southern plantations and it's kind of electrifying. Anyway, the film got picketed by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) and Al Sharpton, who responded to Bakshi's invitation to watch the movie with, "I don't got to see shit; I can smell shit!" Bakshi has since said, "I called Sharpton a black middle-class fucking sell-out, and I'll say it to his face."
I'd better cite Bakshi's credentials. This should be unnecessary... but of course in reality it's all-important.
The Bakshi family were immigrants. Ralph was born in Palestine in 1938, but his family soon emigrated to America to escape World War Two. They lived in New York, then from 1947 in an all-black neighbourhood of Washington D.C. called Foggy Bottom. To quote Bakshi... "All my friends were black, everyone we did business with was black, the school across the street was black. It was segregated, so everything was black. I went to see black movies; black girls sat on my lap. I went to black parties. I was another black kid on the block. No problem!" When he tried to violate segregation and go to the same school as his friends, he ended up getting dragged out of the classroom by the police.
All this and more went into Coonskin. Amusingly though Bakshi sold it to his producer as a remake of Disney's (now-unreleasable) Song of the South, which in a ghastly way is even true. The film is indeed based on Uncle Remus, Brer Rabbit, etc. There's a Bakshi version of the tar baby, "bred and born in a briar patch" and so on. It's just that he's doing evil things with them. He hired black animators at a time when this was unusual, including graffiti artists. He wrote an offensive story full of nudity, killing, etc., then brought it to life with shocking character designs. Apparently the cast were "all a little nervous, except for Charles Gordone, who plays Preacher/Brother Fox. [...] He was ecstatic about the chance to do this. Whenever I had doubts, he'd reassure me, 'Rait on, motherfucker!' [...] Barry [White] and Charles were behind it 1,000 percent."
So, what's it like?
Half of it's live-action. The first ten minutes are done with actors and cameras, starting with Charles Gordone as the most intense, incomprehensible preacher you'll ever see. He's amazing. However even after we've moved across to the animated tale-within-a-tale, there are still live-action inserts, backgrounds and so on. The most outrageous scenes are liable (jarringly) to have real actors taking part, interweaved with the animation. Backgrounds will often be photographs. There's a cringeworthy scene where a white live-action couple patronise our black animated protagonists about how wonderful blacks are and how exciting it is to meet them. It hurt to look at the screen during that bit. Visually this is both ugly and exciting. The freakiest live-action sequence for me was the underground train coffin musicians, which wouldn't have been half as creepy if we hadn't been able to see them for real.
As for the animation, you'll never forget these character designs. Bakshi draws monsters. His black protagonists are caricatures, yes, but so is everyone. Look at those policemen! You'll think they're the ugliest, most repellent things on two legs... until you meet the gangsters. The Godfather (I and II) were taking the world by storm around then and Bakshi was sick of Mafia-worship. He thus creates his own Godfather, who's a vampire Italian red-eyed larva-worm Jabba, disgustingly bloated and possibly the most vile character design you'll ever see in an animated film. His henchmen are demons, often also naked and female. His right hand man is a Pierrot imp baby. After that lot, the outrageous homosexuals, obese nudist death preachers, etc. seem almost normal.
The story is, again, ugly. There's nothing pleasant in it. Our heroes kill, cheat and run gangster operations, yet in a paradoxical way are still likeable. In this way at least, it's a improvement on Heavy Traffic
and especially Fritz the Cat
. Brother Rabbit (Philip Michael Thomas) is flat-out evil and the film is completely open about this. However he's merely the ringleader of a gestalt trio of three protagonists, with the other two being the almost cuddly Brother Bear (Barry White... yes, him) and the deranged motormouth Preacher Fox (Charles Gordone).
The film lives or dies not by its plot, to be honest, but by its vignettes. That's not a bad thing. Some of these are breathtaking. The story of Malcolm the Cockroach is mesmerising, for instance, while there's horror in the evil of Miss America. She's not exactly a character, but instead a personification of the U.S.A. in the form of a naked buxom girl who's been painted with the stars and stripes.
Incidentally there are two different Coonskins in circulation. The 100-minute one was released in Holland (eh?), but the one in general release is the 83-minute version I watched. Oddly it also includes more than seven minutes of footage that's not in the longer cut.
Is the film enjoyable? Well, it's more so than Spike Lee's Bamboozled
, which could be said to be tackling similar territory. I thought the Decapitation By Fan erred in being too cartoonish, but that's just one moment and there are others that would seem to have been born of macabre free-association and have nothing to do with anything else, yet are some of the most memorable things in the movie. The stiffened corpse that won't stay underground, for instance. Ewww. At times it's like an animated Hieronymous Bosch. There's precious little visual realism here, except that of course it's mixed with live-action and so you can't maintain the usual distance of "it's just a cartoon". The only realistically drawn people are naked women. This movie showed me points of view I hadn't considered before, although I can't pretend it was always too worried about how this was coming across as entertainment.
It's very 1970s in that way, I think. There's an intense, unfiltered, rather uncomfortable kind of cinema that's unique to that decade. Bakshi is the only man I know of to have brought that into English-language animated movies. This particular example of it also vanished quickly from cinemas, but the passing of the years has cooled excited heads and I believe it's now better regarded. Striking, even for Bakshi.
"Yeah, I don't wash when I go uptown. Niggers ain't worth washing for."