Like Bob Clampett’s masterpiece “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs,” and Disney’s sadly buried Song of the South, Coonskin is one of the more infamous animated films. Like those films, it is sort of unofficially “banned;” it’s not available on an official DVD, but you can get a VHS copy burned to DVD if you look around. It’s also on Google video and youtube in its entirety.
Ralph Bakshi has always been controversial, most famous for Fritz the Cat, and most infamous for the godawful Cool World. I feel bad for Ralph because you can see what he’s trying to do sometimes, but he doesn’t always have the talent and/or money to achieve it. There’s a saying that art fails when concept outstrips performance, and his career is unfortunately living proof. Some of his projects, like Heavy Traffic or Wizards, work pretty well on their own. Coonskin has a lot of weak spots, but it’s pretty unique in its daring, at least until Spike Lee made Bamboozled. It also has a pretty solid cast and some great social commentary, and some of Bakshi’s better animation work.
We start out with a revivalist preacher giving a sermon, which goes on for way too long and makes little sense, then we cut to a scene outside a prison wall where Old Man Bone (Scatman Crothers, the best part of the movie) and Randy (holy shit, it’s Philip Michael Thomas!) are waiting for the getaway car, driven by Preacherman and Sampson (a perfectly cast Barry White). To pass the time, Bone tells him the story of Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear and Brother Fox as they carve out a criminal empire in Harlem.
That’s where we switch to animation, often on top of real backgrounds. Barry White then voices Brother Bear, Randy becomes Br’er Rabbit, and Scatman plays Pappa, a street guy who narrates and raps at the audience during the many interludes. Roger Ebert didn’t think it was exploitation, but I’m not sure. It’s arty for sure, but Bakshi always knows how to use sex and violence to make the medicine go down.
The story doesn’t resemble the Uncle Remus tales much, since they’re all partners here. Later on it the story, Rabbit does use the “don’t throw me in the briar patch” trick to escape once. The fellas are running a cathouse in the South when the sheriff comes to take his cut. They give him a freebie with one of the girls, but it turns out to be his own daughter! So they have to shoot him and go on the lam, heading up to Harlem.
Up there things are run by the Mafia, run by the Godfather of course, who looks like a wrinkled fat vampire covered with moles. They also have to deal with Simple Savior, a fat black preacher who’s running his own scam on the neighborhood. There’s not much of a plot really, and the movie is boring when it tries to adhere to the flimsy one it has. The best parts are the biting satire and comedy on race relations, from a nasty cop who gets dumped in blackface in Harlem and shot by other cops, or black caricatures trying to get it on with Miss America, or a Jemima-like Mammy chasing a pancake and shooting it.
There’s a bit of crossover with Bakshi’s earlier film Heavy Traffic, about a young animator living at home with his small-time mobster father and Jewish mother, escaping with his black girlfriend Carole. (His drawing a cartoon set to Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” was the movie’s high point for me). The mafia spoof is similar here, but more vicious, with the Godfather’s gay son trying to prove himself being a running joke. The best parts resemble Melvin Van Peebles’s Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song.
My favorite parts are with Scatman Crothers; he gets some of the better social commentary and has the benefit of being a decent actor. He also sings scat and for a few sequences, including one in the next clip that was used in Ice-T’s
Scatman Crothers gives a little rap.
So while some scenes make it feel like a relic, for its time it was shocking and poignant. I give Ralph Bakshi a lot of crap, but he reaches for the stars, so I shouldn’t be so hard on him when he falls extremely short sometimes. The independent animator is at the whim of the producer, and we all know what horrible taste the money men have a lot of the time. Coonskin can be tedious at times, but it’s one of the most biting racial satires put to film, along with Bamboozled, Blazing Saddles, and Watermelon Man. It’s worth hunting down if you like strange films, blaxploitation, or animation beyond the Disney variety.