“Fuck you” are the first words of dialogue in the notorious Coonskin. Welcome to the world of Ralph Bakshi; enjoy your stay. The words are spoken by a nigger, and, whether we like it or not, that’s precisely the right word for him. Nigger. Since birth he’s been told he’s just a nigger, he sees himself as just a nigger, and so that’s what he is. Does that piss you off? Good. It pisses Bakshi off, too. Condemned as “racist” before it was even screened, Coonskin is a withering blast of scorn at the institutional racism that sets black men against each other, keeps them poor and ignorant, and makes them niggers. The tone is set during the credits, when Scatman Crothers sings the Bakshi-written song “Ah’m a Nigger Man,” his voice full of bitter acid. Scattershot as the movie sometimes is (Bakshi retreats from coherence into funky flights of fantasy a little too readily), it’s a ferocious essay on the state of race circa 1975. And, sadly, circa whenever.
Coonskin is Bakshi’s roughhouse update of Song of the South (Bakshi admired Walt Disney, by the way). The cartoon is framed by live-action sequences in which two black prisoners (Crothers and a pre-Miami Vice Philip Michael Thomas) await their getaway car after breaking out of a Southern penitentiary. To pass the time, Crothers tells his young accomplice a new urban version of Uncle Remus, in which Br’er Rabbit, Bear, and Fox go to Harlem. Thomas voices the smooth, amoral Rabbit; Barry White lends his deep rumble to Bear, big and loyal if none too bright; and playwright Charles Gordone, earlier seen as an angry preacher (“I sees ya, Lord — and you better damn well, fuckin‘ well, see me“), voices the erratic, opportunistic Fox.
Most of the black characters in Coonskin are big-lipped caricatures. Under Bakshi’s hand, though, the film is almost an encyclopedia of caricature. Nobody escapes — Italians, gays, Jews, WASPs, women, everyone’s fair game in the ugly, corrupt world seen here. What saves the movie from being an unpalatable wallow is Bakshi’s cartoonist’s-eye affection for most of the characters. They have a raffish humanity not unlike that of Mudbone, the famous character created by Richard Pryor (said to have been an admirer of Coonskin). At one point a black woman silhouetted by a blinking neon sign mourns a cockroach who befriended her and then left; Bakshi has said he meant the anecdote to signify black men who leave their women and children because they can’t support them. Poor black men as cockroaches? Well, nobody said Bakshi’s vision was nice (and more than a few black women might not disagree).
And Bakshi does have a vision, wearingly crass as it can be with repeated exposure. The animation is punctuated with live-action footage of middle-of-the-night New York, caught on the fly. The result is an authentically grungy milieu. Once again, after 1973’s Heavy Traffic (whose release preceded Mean Streets by two months), Bakshi scooped Martin Scorsese (whose Taxi Driver a year later had a similarly seedy atmosphere). Bakshi has an eye for live-action as well as animation; the opening sequence with the two little kids watching the preacher rant and then following him across the landscape is visually compelling.
Rabbit blows into Harlem and runs up against a self-styled black messiah, who takes money from his congregation supposedly for weapons to use in the war against Whitey. Bakshi certainly doesn’t portray blacks as angelic victims; they’ve internalized the white man’s evil and practice it against each other (as summed up in a line from the credits song: “I got the devil in me/It’s the Man, you see/Walk on, niggers, walk on”). The corruption runs deep. The mafia, run by a don known only as The Godfather (Bakshi hated the Coppola film), controls everything. The cops, personified by a loutish latent homosexual, are vicious racists. Two of the Godfather’s three sons are swishy fags — Bakshi generally uses this stereotype to tweak Mafioso machismo. (What’s worse than telling Italian tough guys that their sons are faggots? Well, maybe telling them they’re part eggplant, as in True Romance.)
There is beauty here, however short-lived. The Godfather’s wife, outraged that one of her sons has already died, tries to kill her husband but is gunned down, whereupon she turns into a butterfly. When Bear puts in a brief stint as a boxer (shown as yet another way the Man fosters black-on-black violence), Bakshi gives us an artful live-action montage of fighters in a vast ring trading stylized punishment (scooping Scorsese yet again, this time by half a decade). Coonskin envisions the spirit of America as a big-breasted, seductive slut, who kills or enslaves anyone fool enough to sink into her bosom. Misogynist? Well, if you go to a Bakshi film expecting any politically correct depiction of anyone, you are at the wrong motherfuckin’ show.
Coonskin was let go, with a sigh of relief, by original studio Paramount (Bryanston, distributor of Deep Throat and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and obviously no stranger to controversy, picked the film up), barely released, and subjected to various trims over the years. In the ’90s it showed up on video under the craven new title Streetfight. As of this writing, Bakshi is said to be working on a DVD, which, when it comes, will be greeted with cheers by fans (among them Spike Lee and the Wu Tang Clan) and probably with bafflement by most others. Let’s hope that its original title, along with any footage that might’ve been snipped or softened over the years, will be restored.
Nobody else would have had the balls to make this film; nobody else would have had the talent to do it so incisively, compassionately, and, yes, hilariously. Coonskin is as scabrously entertaining, and as awash in necessary offense, as the day it was released. And also, unfortunately, as relevant.