Coonskin

(Catch my previous Ralph Bakshi film reviews here: Fritz the Cat and Heavy Traffic)

For Ralph Bakshi’s third feature in 1975, he decided to tackle a particularly prickly issue head-on in one of the most outrageous, schismatic ways one might imagine: A take-down and critique of racism, prejudice, and stereotyping using racist caricatures to, hopefully, elicit a proper cleaning of house for all those creators in the animation, film, and television industries who had for years been creating caricatures of their own either volitionally or unwillingly.

The mixed animation/live-action film incorporates sequences and characters from the old racially-charged Uncle Remus storybooks transported to a then-modern Harlem where the characters of Brer Rabbit, Bear, and Fox have become Brother Rabbit (Philip Michael Thomas), Brother Bear (Barry White), and Preacher Fox (Charles Gordone) aided by Old Man Bone (Scat Man Crothers). As these animated characters move through an early 70s Harlem, they fight to kill the cops and mafia muscling in and always taking a cut on business and families for ‘protection’ and the promise of not arresting people. But there are constant schisms within the community that have to be addressed along the way.

The first of these being the role of religion in the community as horrendously tied up in the system of oppression with preachers acting as big-wig rock stars of sorts merely taking their weekly ten percent from parishioners without providing any political, economic, social, or even brute force capital in return with which to battle the ‘whitey’ forces draining the community. In a radical move, Bakshi has Brother’s Bear and Rabbit muscle in to kill the local megachurch clergyman (something even a good self-respecting Christian can typically support!) and take his till to buy guns for the upcoming revolution.

Next, the two open a whorehouse that they use to lure in the local corrupt police chief Madigan. Unbeknownst to him, they have hired his own daughter as one of their girls. when Madigan finds out, he flies into a rage and kills his own deputies who have been consorting with the girl for some time. Brother Rabbit knocks out Madigan, has him painted black, and drops him and his dead deputies off in an abandoned lot. He calls the police and anonymously tips them off about some black guy in that location who has killed a few officers. And what comes next is a pretty amazing ironic turn, and a revenge doled out most fitting as Madigan’s own men shoot him down in the lot once he comes to. In a beautiful turn of fate, Madigan’s racism subverts itself and ends in his own death, and his actions can only be interpreted as insanity on his part, leaving no connection to the event as part and parcel of the black community’s revenge.

Finally, Preacher Fox opens a whorehouse where he marries the Johns to his whores for one day before divorcing them. As this process is one of sexual action between consenting adults, and the money paid to the house can be accounted for as marital and divorce fees, he has a good tidy profit and a legal business, which is difficult to prosecute against and makes police involvement in the prostitution gambit in Harlem less likely. As Brother Bear and Rabbit collect all of the mob’s protection money from local businesses and instead use that money to really protect the community, the Godfather begins to send his sons to assassinate the new Harlem bosses.

Bear and Rabbit kill each of his sons and all looks lost for the mob in the region, except for Fox who continues to pay his protection fees to the Godfather. In this way, he gains the ear and affections of the obese white cockroach he is (a de-glorification of the mafia was one of Bakshi’s goals in the film as his contemporaries in the New Hollywood movement of live-action had been making films portraying them as commendable and honorable figures for years) and convinces him to tempt the strongman Brother Bear into a career as a Heavyweight Boxer for the mob. As it was pre-planned, Bear accepts after some deliberation, fights, and eventually becomes the Heavyweight World Champion, which gives Rabbit the opening to trap the Godfather and his remaining family and extinguish their flames for good.

As Harlem is subsequently freed and all those not in solidarity with the prospect of bettering the place are eliminated, a live-action story is simultaneously taking place. Randy (Thomas) and Pappy (Crothers) escape jail while their friends Sampson (White) and Preacherman (Gordone) drive down their way to pick them up. Although just abut everyone is shot up by prison guards during the trip, the four miraculously escape, alive. This signifies that solidarity and tenacity in the approach to total freedom from oppression, prejudice, and racism can, and will, win the day, one day, in time.

The film was given an ‘R’ rating unlike Bakshi’s previous two ‘X’ rated films, and as such, had a real possibility of reaching more theaters and eyes than ever before in Bakshi’s career. This would have been necessary to recoup the $1.6 million USD budget of the film (almost a doubling of his previous budget on Heavy Traffic of $900,000). But it was attacked immediately upon its first screenings by the Congress of Racial Equality who called the film racist. Many theaters didn’t want to deal with the prospect of being boycotted for showing the film or dealing with other sorts of protests for merely choosing to show this specific film, and as such, it made almost none of its money back, despite the film’s support as a ‘difficult satire’ by the more respected NAACP, which had apparently actually given the film a view or two.

And despite its lack of showings theatrically, the film has garnered a strong critical support as one of, if not the greatest Ralph Bakshi film: a sentiment he supports, and which I find it difficult to argue against. And if all of this wasn’t enough to drive one to search out and view the film as an artistic and social document of a progressive nature, then it might also interest one to note that on this film Bakshi hired a largely black animation staff including graffiti artists Bakshi personally mentored and trained in the rudiments of animation, and the first female African American animator, Brenda Banks.

 

Cody Ward

[Next up: Wizards]

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