Featuring an outrageous barrage of images, themes, and words about race, the animation/live-action hybrid Coonskin is among the most incendiary products of the blaxploitation era. A casual viewer stumbling onto any part of the film would probably find the material shockingly racist, and the reaction would be compounded by the discovery that Coonskin was written and directed by a white man. Taken in context, however, Coonskin is a deeply complicated piece of work. Part satire and part tragedy, it’s a sexualized and violent phantasmagoria about the cancerous reach of racism. The question of whether filmmaker Ralph Bakshi justifies his extremes by placing his work into a sociopolitical framework is one that each individual viewer must explore, because the content of Coonskin is deliberately offensive. By presenting grotesque caricatures of African-Americans, gays, Italians, Jews, rednecks, women, and so on, Bakski tries to confront small-minded attitudes. Yet in so doing, he unavoidably perpetuates stereotypes. Some influencers in the African-American community have embraced the movie over the years, while many others have vilified the piece as the cinematic equivalent of a hate crime.
Coonsin opens with a series of vignettes. First, two animated characters, both African-American dudes dressed like pimps, appear over a live-action background to deliver a volley of angry humor. (The first line of dialogue is “Fuck you!”) Next, actor/singer Scatman Crothers appears onscreen to perform a jive-talkin’ ditty about the troubles of being a “nigger man” while the opening credits appear. Finally, the story proper begins, with two black convicts, Pappy (Crothers) and Randy (Philip Michael Thomas), prepping for a prison break in a live-action sequence. While the inmates hide from guards, Pappy tells Randy a fable that Bakshi illustrates with animated sequences.
The fable involves three black men—Brother Bear (voiced by Barry White), Brother Rabbit (voiced by Thomas), and Preacher Fox (Charles Gordone)—getting into hassles with the law down south. Soon, the group heads for Harlem, where Brother Rabbit kills a high-powered gangster and takes over the criminal’s operation. As Brother Rabbit rises to power, he and his friends get into hassles with corrupt cops, manipulative prostitutes, and vengeful mobsters, among others. Lots of animated bloodshed and sex ensues.
Many scenes blend cartoons and live-action images within the same frame—Bakshi recruited ace Hollywood cinematographer William A. Fraker to shoot the live-action material, and Fraker provides an appropriately gritty look. Long stretches of Coonskin are surrealistic, with Bakshi embarking on flights of artistic fancy. A woman turns into a butterfly. A deceased fat man gets buried, but his body parts keep popping up through the dirt of the grave, as if the earth can’t contain his girth. A voluptuous streetwalker wearing an American-flag costume blows away a horny guy by using the cannon hidden in her crotch. Concurrently, the race-themed dialogue goes as far over the top as the animation does. “I’m tired of trying to segregate, integrate, and masturbate!” “I sees you, Lord, and you fuckin’ well better see me!” “Killin’ crackers, I guess that’s cool!” Even the religious material is inflammatory. A 300-pound preacher calling himself “Black Jesus” performs in front of his flock while nude, his junk flailing to and fro, and another preacher uses the gospel as a come-on to lure a man into a brothel. When Bakshi opens fire with his satirical machine gun, no one escapes unharmed.
In many ways, Coonskin is deeply alive, with creativity and indignation and passion powering every frame. And yet the movie is also a mess, with herky-jerky storytelling, potshots at easy targets, and underdeveloped characters. It’s more of an experience than a proper movie. Is the experience worthwhile? For some viewers, the answer to that question will be a resounding yes, because Coonskin gives it to bigots with both barrels. However, the disjointed, grotesque, and juvenile aspects of the movie are big turnoffs for those who expect their sociopolitical discussions to unfold on a higher plane. By any regard, Coonskin is Bakshi’s boldest movie, which is saying a lot seeing as how he made the world’s first X-rated cartoon, Fritz the Cat (1972).