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Coonskin is a 1975 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 Harlemmarker, encountering corrupt law enforcement, con artists and the Mafia. The film, which combines live-action with animation, stars Philip Michael Thomas, Charles Gordone, Barry White and Scatman Crothers, all of whom appear in both live-action and animated sequences. Coonskin utilizes a number of references to various elements from African American culture, ranging from African folk tales to the work of cartoonist George Herriman, and satirizes racist and other stereotypes, as well as the blaxploitation genre, Song of the South, and The Godfather.

Originally produced under the titles Harlem Nights and Coonskin No More..., Coonskin encountered extreme controversy before its original theatrical release when the Congress of Racial Equality strongly criticized the content as being racist, although none of the group's members had seen the film. When the film was finally released, Bryanston gave it limited distribution and initially received negative reviews. Later re-released under the titles Bustin' Out and Street Fight, Coonskin has since been reappraised, with many considering it to be one of Bakshi's finest works.

Plot

Sampson (Barry White) and the Preacherman (Charles Gordone) rush to help their friend, Randy (Philip Michael Thomas) escape from prison, but are stopped by a roadblock and wind up in a shootout with the police. While waiting for them, Randy unwillingly listens to fellow escapee Pappy (Scatman Crothers), as he begins to tell Randy a story about "three guys [I used to know] just like you and your friends". Pappy's story is told in animation set against live-action background photos and footage.
Brother Rabbit, Preacher Fox and Brother Bear.
Brother Rabbit (voice of Thomas), Brother Bear (voice of White), and Preacher Fox (voice of Gordone) decide 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. Arriving in Harlemmarker, Rabbit, Bear, and Fox find that it isn't all that it's made out to be. They encounter a con man named Simple Savior, a phony revolutionary leader who purports to be the "cousin" of Black Jesus, and that he gives his followers "the strength to kill white". 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". When Rabbit attempts to turn the crowd, Savior tries to have him killed. After Rabbit tricks his would-be murderers (in a paraphrase of the story of Br'er Rabbit and the briar patch), he and Bear kill Savior. This allows Rabbit to take over Savior's racket, putting him in line to become the head of all organized crime in Harlem. But first, he has to get rid of a few other opponents. Savior's former partners tell Rabbit that if he can't kill his opponents, then they'll kill him instead.

Rabbit first goes up against Madigan, a virulently racist and homophobic white 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 they're not worth it). When Madigan 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. Madigan, 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 women's clothing representative of the mammy archetype, adorned in blackface, and finally shoved out the back of the club where he discovers that Ruby and Bobby are dead. Then, while recovering from his delirium of being drugged, shoots his gun around randomly, and is shot to death by the police after shooting one of them.

Rabbit's final targets are the Godfather (voice of an uncredited Al Lewis) and the Mafia, who live in the subway. The contract for killing Rabbit is given to Sonny (voice of Richard Paul). Showing up outside Rabbit's nightclub in blackface and clothing representative of minstrel show stereotypes, Sonny winds up shot multiple times by Rabbit before dying in an explosion caused by a car crash. His body is cremated and taken back home, where his mother weeps over his ashes. 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 Fox's newly acquired brothel, Bear is "married" to a girl he, Fox, and Rabbit met during the fight with Savior's men. Under the advisement of Fox, Bear becomes a boxer for the Mafia. During one of Bear's 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, 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.

Production history

Not long after Ralph was born in Haifamarker, Palestine, the Bakshis shifted to a mostly African-American and Jewish neighborhood in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, US-NYmarker. Around April 1947 though, Ralph's father and uncle then traveled to Washington D.C.marker in search of new business opportunities, moving the family into a building in the entirely black neighborhood of Foggy Bottom. Ralph recalls that "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!"

Because Bakshi felt that it was not fair for him to walk several miles every day to attend Greenleaf Elementary School while all of his friends attended segregated schools, he asked his mother if he could attend school with his friends in the fall, and she agreed. Bakshi was the only white student in the classroom. While most of the students had no problem with Bakshi attending the school, the teacher sought advice from the principal, who called the police. Suspecting that segregated whites would riot if they learned that a white student was attending a black school, the police dragged Bakshi out of the classroom. Meanwhile, Ralph's father had been experiencing anxiety attacks and stress. Within a few months, Ralph's mother sold their store, and the family moved back to Brownsville, where they rarely spoke of these events.

These experiences had a strong impact on Bakshi, and led him to develop Harlem Nights, a satirical film loosely based upon the Uncle Remus storybooks. 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. When Steve Krantz, the producer of both Heavy Traffic and Bakshi's debut feature, Fritz the Cat, learned that Bakshi would work with Ruddy, Krantz locked Bakshi out of the studio. After two weeks, Krantz asked Bakshi back to finish the picture. In 1974, production of Coonskin began under the working title Harlem Nights, with Paramount Pictures originally attached to distribute the film. The title was eventually changed to Coonskin No More... and finally to Coonskin. Bakshi hired several black animators to work on Coonskin and another feature, Hey Good Lookin'. At the time, there were no black animators working at the Walt Disney Company.

Style and subject matter

A scene intended to satirize black stereotypes.
Coonskin uses a variety of racist caricatures from blackface minstrelsy and darky iconography, including stereotypes featured in Hollywoodmarker films and cartoons, presented in a manner that was intended to satirize the racism of the material and images rather than reinforce it. Bakshi intended to attack stereotypes by portraying them directly, and rejected early designs in which Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear and Preacher Fox resembled designs from The Wind in the Willows storybook for this reason. In the book That's 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. [...] He subverts the context of Hollywood's entire catalogue of racist black iconography through a series of swift cross-edits of original and appropriated footage." The film also features a number of equally exaggerated portrayals of white Southerner, Italian and homosexuals, also presented in a satirical context. The depiction of Jewish characters stems from stereotypes portrayed in Nazi propaganda, including The Eternal Jew. According to Bakshi, although producer Albert S. Ruddy was "fine" with the satire, it seemed that no one really knew what Bakshi was up to as he worked on the film. "Every one thought the picture was going to be anti-black. I intended it to be anti-idiot."

In his review for The Hollywood Reporter, Arthur Knight wrote "Coonskin is not anti-black. Nor is it anti-Jewish, anti-Italian, or anti-American, all of whom fall prey to Bakshi's wicked caricaturist's pen as intensely as any of the blacks in his movie. What Bakshi is against, as this film makes abundantly clear, is the cheats, the rip-off artists, the hypocrites, the phonies, the con men and the organized criminals of this world, regardless of race, color, or creed." The film is most critical in its portrayal of the Mafia. According to Bakshi, "I was incensed at all the hero worship of those guys in The Godfather; Pacino and Caan did such a great job of making you like them. [...] One thing that stunned me about The Godfather movie: here's a mother who gives birth to children, and her husband essentially gets all her sons killed. In Coonskin, she gets her revenge, but also gets shot. She turns into a butterfly and gets crushed. [...] These guys don't give you any room."

Casting

The live-action sequences feature singers Barry White and Scatman Crothers, actor and playwright Charles Gordone, and actors Philip Michael Thomas, Danny Rees and Buddy Douglas. Thomas, Gordone and White also provide the voices of the film's main animated characters. In the film's ending credits, the actors were only credited for their live-action roles, and all voice actors who did not appear in the live-action sequences were left entirely uncredited. Among the voices featured in the film was Al Lewis, best known for appearing as Grandpa on The Munsters. According to Bakshi, the entire cast "[was] 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 and Charles were behind it 1,000 percent." Bakshi also worked with Gordone on the film Heavy Traffic, and worked with Thomas again on the film Hey Good Lookin'.

Directing

Ralph Bakshi in January 2009.
The experience of living in both Brownsville and Foggy Bottom was a major influence on his work. While designing the look of Fritz the Cat, Heavy Traffic and Coonskin, Bakshi empathized an intentionally crude quality in the animation. He is quoted as saying "What I was trying to do was relate to the person in the street. I was looking for a sort of Graffiti Art feel—the colors, the structure, a certain crudeness of backgrounds. I even used grainy films at times. The important thing to me was to relate to a certain type of person that I grew up with. To do what I call an art of the street, a 'Ghetto Art.' It's my form of expression." Bakshi has also stated "The art of cartooning is vulgarity. The only reason for cartooning to exist is to be on the edge. If you only take apart what they allow you to take apart, you're Disney. Cartooning is a low-class, for-the-public art, just like graffiti art and rap music. Vulgar but believable, that's the line I kept walking."

Coonskin uses a variety of different styles of artwork, filmmaking and storytelling techniques. Film critic Leonard Maltin wrote that Coonskin "remains one of [Bakshi's] most exciting films, both visually and conceptually." The use of a live-action frame story is a satirical reference to Walt Disney's Song of the South. These sequences were shot in Oklahomamarker. The El Renomarker state prison was one of the locations used during filming. A week after Bakshi and his crew left, the prison was burned during a riot. The film also uses live-action photographs and footage as backdrops for animated sequences, a filmmaking technique Bakshi previously employed in Heavy Traffic. The filming of live-action footage also helped contribute elements to the film's story. According to Bakshi, while shooting live-action background footage on Times Square at 4 A.M., a group of prostitutes came out and waved towards the camera before being chased off by the police. "That happened by accident, but we put it in the film. I never could have written anything that real in the script."

Writing

Darius James writes that Coonskin "reads like an Uncle Remus folktale rewritten by Chester Himes with all the Yoruba-based surrealism of Nigerianmarker-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 film's 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 light-skinned African American Creole, is his favorite cartoonist. According to Bakshi, the scene "is based on personal experiences of black men I knew who couldn't afford to feed their families, so they left because they couldn't stand to see them suffer."

Of the writing process, Bakshi stated "The way I worked was that everyone recorded the script. But then I would change my opinion over the course of the year I made the film. I read every black culture book I could get a hand on. Then my opinion on these matters would change. I ran my own studio—I had no boss. I was the director and the writer. I would write and rewrite and record all year. I was always in a state of flux in my films; the process was as important as a finished project." In another interview, Bakshi stated "In Coonskin, I was able to stop an entire movie and integrate Miss America poems. I would do two or three movies within a movie. I would use subtext of ideas and go with it wherever I felt it should go. That, to me, is extremely exciting – improvisational almost poetry, in a sense. I love Bukowski."

Music

The film's musical score was written and performed by jazz drummer and bandleader Chico Hamilton. The film's opening credits feature Scatman Crothers performing a song called "Ah'm a Nigger Man." Crothers wrote the music, and its lyrics were written by Bakshi himself, containing the lines "Ah'm the minstrel man/Ah'm the cleaning man/Ah'm the poor man/Ah'm the shoe shine man/Ah'm a Nigger Man/Watch me dance!" The song's structure was rooted in the history of plantations, when slaves would "shout" lines from poems and stories great distances across fields in unison, creating a natural beat, and its fast guitar licks and rhymes feature what Bakshi described as "an early version of rap". There has been no soundtrack album released to date. In 1989, Crothers' spoken reprise of "Ah'm a Nigger Man" was sampled in the track "Hit The Deck", from Ice-T's album The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say.

Controversy

When the film was finished, a showing was planned at the Museum of Modern Artmarker. In a 1980 interview, Bakshi stated, "the museum had seen the film and loved it, a breakthrough in animation. They set up a very special night to screen it for film people." The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) surrounded the building before anyone had seen it yet, in a protest led by Al Sharpton. According to Bakshi, "The room was filled, although there weren't many protesters from CORE there, eight or nine. Screaming, 'You can't watch this film!' People pulling people out of their seats. It was that kind of night. The audience was very frightened. They were being attacked verbally throughout the movie. People kept running up and down the aisles in pitch blackness."

In a 1982 interview, Bakshi stated "I had finished the film on a Friday, I screened it in California for the museum on a Monday, and on Wednesday when I came to New York to screen it there were pickets there. I brought the film on the plane with me, and no one had seen it but my animators and two guys from the museum. But there were pickets there, shouting that the film was racist. I never saw anything so set up in my life, but the press never picked up on that."

Bakshi asked Sharpton why he didn't come in and see the movie. In response, Sharpton announced, "I don't got to see shit; I can smell shit!" In a 2008 interview, Bakshi stated that "I called Sharpton a black middle-class fucking sell-out, and I’ll say it to his face. Al Sharpton is one of those guys who abused the revolution to support whatever it was he wanted." According to Bakshi, "[Sharpton] brought in some bruisers, and I could hear them asking, 'Should we beat him up or cool it?' 'Ah, let's watch the film.'" "They were geared to dislike it" says Bakshi. "They were booing at the titles! I guess it was an easy target. Or they were paid to do it. I don't know. It was very unusual. They were booing at something they hadn't even seen. This was interesting to me." After the screening, Bakshi states that Sharpton charged up to the screen, but "people didn’t want to follow Sharpton up the aisle. His own men! He was screaming to me on the podium and turning around to them, saying, 'Are you guys coming up?' But they didn’t want to, because they loved the movie."

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 [...] The question-and-answer session with Bakshi that followed quickly collapsed into the chaos of a shouting match."

According to animation historian Jerry Beck, he did not recall any disturbance during the screening, but there were racist catcalls during the question-and-answer session, and Bakshi's talk was cut short. "It wasn't much of a madhouse, but it was kind of wild for the Museum of Modern Art." According to Bakshi, "there were five people who were very angry at me and were very vocal. There were two hundred people sitting in their seats that applauded the film tremendously. It's always the five people in a room that want to scream, and those are the ones that are going to be heard. That's what really happened. I laughed at the controversy." According to Ruddy, he had been told that "there were about four hundred people there. I think ten or fifteen blacks took objection to some of the things, and they had somewhat of a scream-out with Ralph at the end [...] It was also for the board of the museum. They loved it. They thought it was a classic."

Following the showing, the Paramount Building in New York Citymarker was picketed by CORE. Elaine Parker, chairman of the Harlem chapter of CORE, had spoken out against the film in January 1975. She told Variety that the film "depicts us as slaves, hustlers and whores. It's a racist film to me, and very insulting [...] If it is released, there's no telling what we might do." The Los Angeles chapter of CORE demanded that Paramount not release the film, claiming that it was "highly objectionable to the black community." The NAACP had written a letter describing the film as a difficult satire, but supported it. Bakshi has stated, "The film was positive black in a huge way. It shows what white people think of blacks. I'm not a racist. I couldn't understand it and I still can't. If I were a racist for the Ku Klux Klan, I could understand it. But how could I understand the booing?"

With Paramount's permission, Bakshi and Ruddy got contractually released, and the Bryanston Distributing Company was assigned the rights to the film. Two weeks after the film opened, the distributor went bankrupt. According to a May 1975 issue of The Hollywood Reporter, Ben Gage was hired to rerecord Barry White's voice track, in order to remove "racist references and vulgarity." Coonskin was given limited distribution, advertised as a blaxploitation film. Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film:

Coonskin is said by its director to be about blacks and for whites, and by its ads to be for blacks and against whites.
Its title was originally intended to break through racial stereotypes by its bluntness, but now the ads say the hero and his pals are out "to get the Man to stop calling them coonskin."
The movie's original distributor, Paramount, dropped it after pressure from black groups.
Now it's being sold by Bryanston as an attack on the system.
[...] Coonskin is provocative, original and deserves better than being sold as the very thing it's not.


According to Bakshi, when Martin Scorsese was filming second-unit material for Taxi Driver near Times Square, a smoke bomb was thrown into a theater showing Coonskin, and Scorsese sent Bakshi footage of audience members running out of the theater. "I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, but it's okay now."

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. CORE's pickets at Paramount's Gulf + Western headquarters and, later, a few smoke bombs lobbed into packed Broadway theaters were enough; theater owners were intimidated, and the auxiliary distributor, Bryanston, couldn't book the film. Bye-Bye Coonskin."

Critical response

Initial reviews of the film were negative. Playboy said of the film, "Bakshi seems to throw in a little of everything and he can't 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, "[Bakshi] doesn't have much affection for man or woman kind—black or white." Eventually, positive reviews appeared in the New York Times, the Hollywood Reporter, the New York Amsterdam News (an African American newspaper), and elsewhere, but the film died at the box office. Richard Eder of The New York Times wrote, "[Coonskin] could be his masterpiece [...] a shattering successful effort to use an uncommon form—cartoons and live action combined—to convey the hallucinatory violence and frustration of American city life, specifically black city life [...] lyrically violent, yet in no way [does it] exploit violence." Variety called the film a "brutal satire from the streets. Not for all tastes [...] not avant-garde. [...] 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 it's not Disney. I liked it. The dialogue it has obviously generated—if not the box office obstacles—seems jotingly healthy."

Legacy

Coonskin was later re-released under the title Bustin' Out, but it was not a success. The film developed a cult following through home video releases and film festivals. According to Bakshi, "The film was very popular with black audiences. Let 'em laugh at what they always laugh at, then catch them off guard, which is what I do in all my films." Fans of the film include film directors Spike Lee, and Quentin Tarantino, who spoke about the film for thirty minutes at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival. The Wu-Tang Clan have expressed interest in producing a sequel. According to Bakshi, Richard Pryor was also a supporter of the film. Darius James quotes Bakshi as saying "Pryor loves it! He thinks it's great!" James' book also states that Bakshi wanted to work with Pryor on a live-action/animated film based on Pryor's stand-up comedy. Bakshi is quoted as saying "I get emails from new fans all the time on it. Some can't believe I'm white." In 2003, the Online Film Critics Society ranked the film as the 97th greatest animated film of all time. Bakshi has stated that he considers Coonskin to be his best film. 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". Home video releases in the United Kingdom, however, used the original theatrical release title.

References

  1. Ice-T (1989). "Hit The Deck". The Iceberg/Freedom of Speech...Just Watch What You Say. Sire/Warner Bros. Records. ISBN 075992602822
  2. Solomon, Charles (1989), p. 275. Enchanted Drawings: The History of Animation. ISBN 0-394-54684-9. New York City: Alfred A. Knopf. Accessed March 17, 2008.


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