ⓘ Coonskin (film)
Coonskin is a 1975 American live action/animated satire crime film written and directed by Ralph Bakshi, about an African American rabbit, fox, and bear who rise to the top of the organized crime racket in Harlem, encountering corrupt law enforcement, con artists, and the Mafia. The film, which combines live-action with animation, stars Philip Thomas, Charles Gordone, Barry White, and Scatman Crothers, all of whom appear in both live-action and animated sequences.
Originally produced under the titles Harlem Nights and Coonskin No More. at Paramount Pictures, Coonskin encountered controversy before its original theatrical release when the Congress of Racial Equality criticized the content as being racist. When the film was released, Bryanston gave it limited distribution and it initially received mixed reviews. Later re-released under the titles Bustin Out and Street Fight, Coonskin has since been re-appraised. A New York Times review said, Coonskin could be Ralph Bakshis masterpiece." Bakshi has stated that he considers Coonskin to be his best film.
In a small town in Oklahoma, Sampson and the local Preacherman plan to bust out their friend Randy from prison. As they rush to the prison, the two are stopped by a roadblock and have a shootout with the police. Meanwhile, Randy and another cellmate named Pappy escape from inside the prison and wait for Sampson and the Preacherman to help them get out. While waiting for them, Randy unwillingly listens to Pappy tell a story about three guys that resemble Randy and his friends. Pappys story is told in animation set against live-action background photos and footage.
Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear, and Preacher Fox are forced to pack up and leave their Southern settings after the bank mortgages their home and sells it to a man who turns it into a brothel. The trio moves to Harlem, "home to every black man". When they arrive, Rabbit, Bear, and Fox find that it is not all that it is made out to be. They encounter a con man named Simple Savior, a phony revolutionary leader who claims to be the cousin of "Black Jesus", and that he gives his followers "the strength to kill whites". In a flashy stage performance in his "church", Savior acts out being brutalized by symbols of black oppression - represented by images of John Wayne, Elvis Presley, and Richard Nixon, before asking his parishioners for "donations". Rabbit and his friends quickly realize that Saviors "revolution" is merely a money-making scam. Rabbit openly steals a large portion of the donation money, prompting Savior to try to have him killed. After Rabbit tricks his would-be murderers in a paraphrasing of the story of Brer Rabbit and the brier patch, he and Bear kill Savior. This allows Rabbit to take over Saviors racket, putting him in line to become the head of all organized crime in Harlem. Rabbit lays out his plan to keep all organized crime money in Harlem. But first, he has to get rid of a few other opponents. Saviors former partners tell Rabbit they will join him but only if he can kill his opponents; otherwise they will kill him instead.
Rabbit first goes up against Managan, a virulently racist and homophobic Irish police officer and bagman for the Mafia, who demonstrates his contempt for African-Americans in various ways, including a refusal to bathe before an anticipated encounter with them he believes that they are not worth it. When Managan finds out that Rabbit has been taking his payoffs, he and his cohorts, Ruby and Bobby, are led to a nightclub called "The Cottontail". A black stripper distracts him while an LSD sugar cube is dropped into his drink. Managan, while under the influence of his spiked drink, is then maneuvered into a sexual liaison with a stereotypically effeminate gay man, and then shoved into womens clothing representative of the mammy archetype, adorned in blackface, and shoved out to the back of the club, where he discovers that Ruby and Bobby are dead. While recovering from being drugged, he fires his gun randomly, and is brutally shot to death by the police after shooting one of the officers.
Rabbits final target is the Godfather who lives in the subway with his wife and his cross-dressing, gay and possibly incestuous sons. The contract for killing Rabbit is given to his only straight son Sonny. Arriving outside Rabbits nightclub in blackface and clothing representative of minstrel show stereotypes, Sonny attempts to kill Rabbit, but Bear defends Rabbit, at the cost of getting shot by Sonny several times. When Sonny then attempts to escape in his car, he is shot multiple times by Rabbit before crashing into a wall and dying in the subsequent explosion. Rabbit then helps the injured Bear to safety. Sonnys body is cremated and taken back home, where his mother weeps over his ashes.
During his recovery, Bear becomes torn between staying with Rabbit or starting a new crime-free life. Bear decides to look for Fox in order to seek his advice. Upon arriving at Foxs newly acquired brothel, Bear is "married" to a girl that he, Fox, and Rabbit met during the fight with Saviors men. Under the advisement of Fox, Bear becomes a boxer for the Mafia. During one of Bears fights, Rabbit sets up a melting imitation of himself made out of tar. As the Mafiosos take turns stabbing at the "tar rabbit", they become stuck together. Rabbit leaves a bomb next to them and then he, Bear, Fox, and the opponent boxer rush out of the boxing arena as it blows up.
The live-action story ends with Randy and Pappy escaping from the prison while being shot at by various white cops, but managing to make it out alive.
The main plot of the film is interspersed with animated vignettes depicting a white, blonde, large-breasted Miss America who serves as a personification of the United States. In each of these short scenes, she seduces a black man meant to depict the African-American populace, only to instead beat or kill him.
- Scatman Crothers – Pappy
- Charles Gordone – Preacherman
- Philip Michael Thomas – Randy
- Barry White – Sampson
- Barry White - Brother Bear
- Al Lewis – The Godfather
- Buddy Douglas – Referee
- Jesse Welles - Marrigold and Miss America
- Scatman Crothers - Old Man Bone, Additional Voices
- Jim Moore – Mime
- Philip Michael Thomas - Brother Rabbit
- Frank de Kova – Managan
- Charles Gordone - Preacher Fox
- Ralph Bakshi – Cop With Megaphone
- Richard Paul – Sonny
- Danny Rees – Clown Mario
3. Production history
During the production of Heavy Traffic, filmmaker Ralph Bakshi met and developed an instant friendship with producer Albert S. Ruddy during a screening of The Godfather, and pitched Harlem Nights to Ruddy. In 1973, production of Harlem Nights began, with Paramount Pictures where Bakshi once worked as the head of its cartoon studio originally attached to distribute the film. Bakshi hired several black animators to work on Harlem Nights, including graffiti artists, at a time when black animators were not widely employed by major animation studios. Production concluded in the same year. During production, the film went under several titles, including Harlem Days and Coonskin No More.
Coonskin uses a variety of racist caricatures from blackface minstrelsy and darky iconography, including stereotypes featured in Hollywood films and cartoons. In the book Thats Blaxploitation! Roots of the Baadasssss Tude Rated X by an All-Whyte Jury, Darius James writes that "Bakshi pukes the iconographic bile of a racist culture back in its stupid, bloated face, wipes his chin and smiles Dirty Harry style. most exciting films, both visually and conceptually." Darius James writes that Coonskin "reads like an Uncle Remus folktale rewritten by Chester Himes with all the Yoruba-based surrealism of Nigerian author Amos Tutuola." The film directly references the original African folk tales that the Uncle Remus storybooks were based on in two scenes that are directly reminiscent of the stories The Briar Patch and The Tar Baby. Writer and former pimp Iceberg Slim is briefly referenced in the dialogue of Preacher Fox, and the Liston–Ali fights are referenced in the films final act, in which Brother Bear, like Sonny Liston, is sold out to the Mafia. The film also features a pastiche of cartoonist George Herriman and columnist Don Marquis "archy and mehitabel", in a monologue about a cockroach that leaves the woman who loves him. Bakshi has stated that Herriman, a Biracial American Creole, his favorite cartoonist.
When the film was finished, a showing was planned at the Museum of Modern Art. The Congress of Racial Equality CORE surrounded the building, in a protest led by Elaine Parker. Gregg Kilday of the Los Angeles Times interviewed Larry Kardish, a museum staff member, and Kardish recalled that "About halfway into the film about ten members of CORE showed up. They walked up and down the aisles and were very belligerent. In my estimation they were determined not to like the film. Apparently some of their friends had read the script of the movie and in their belief it was detrimental to the image of blacks Coonskin is provocative, original and deserves better than being sold as the very thing its not.
In a 1982 article published in The Village Voice, Carol Cooper wrote Coonskin was driven out of theaters by a misguided minority, most of whom had never seen the film. COREs pickets at Paramounts Gulf and Western headquarters and, later, a few smoke bombs lobbed into packed Broadway theaters were enough; theater owners were intimidated, and the auxiliary distributor, Bryanston, couldnt book the film. Bye-Bye Coonskin."
5. Critical response
Initial reviews of the film were mixed. Playboy said of the film, "Bakshi seems to throw in a little of everything and he cant quite pull it together." A review published in The Village Voice called the film "the product of a crippled hand and a paralyzed mind." Arthur Cooper wrote in Newsweek, The target audience is youth who read comics in the undergrounds." A reviewer for The Los Angeles Herald Examiner wrote "Certainly, it will outrage some and indeed its not Disney. I liked it. The dialogue it has obviously generated - if not the box office obstacles - seems joltingly healthy."
Coonskin was later re-released under the title Bustin Out, but it was not a success. In 2003, the Online Film Critics Society ranked the film as the 97th greatest animated film of all time. Coonskin was released on VHS by Academy Entertainment in late 1987, and later by Xenon Entertainment Group in the 1990s, both under the re-release title, Street Fight. The 1987 edition carried the disclaimer, "Warning: This film offends everybody".
In 2010, Shout! Factory announced that Coonskin would be released on DVD in November 2010, intending to release it with a reversible cover with both titles of the film; the release was cancelled due to a legal issue involving ownership of the rights to the film, resolved with Xenons eventual DVD release in 2012. The 2012 release was the first official home video release to carry the films original title. In September 2012, Bakshi incorporated animation from Coonskin into a new short film, Trickle Dickle Down, criticizing Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.