1/4, 1970s, Comedy, Ralph Bakshi, Review


#6 in my ranking of Ralph Bakshi’s filmography.

This might be all of Ralph Bakshi’s worst impulses in one film. I know that the reappraisal of Bakshi’s work has placed this near the top, but this might be the most incoherent thing he’s made up to this point in his career. It’s all over the place with something incredibly indistinct to say about the black experience in America while poorly balancing its stylistic and thematic concerns against each other. Derided as deeply racist in its day for the use of racial caricature, in particular around its black characters (the hideous caricature of the Italian characters got less attention for some reason), I’m inclined to believe that Bakshi was trying to make a counterpoint to the caricatures he was using instead of an unironic use of them (his personal history and obvious affinity for black culture born of his being raised in the lower income parts of Brooklyn are key points). Still, despite his goals, Bakshi still proved himself incapable of managing a sustained narrative over the course of 80 minutes.

In a live action wraparound narrative, Sampson (Barry White) and the preacher (Charles Gordone) get into a car to break their friend Randy (Philip Michael Thomas) and Pappy (Scatman Crothers) from prison. They get delayed in getting to the prison in the middle of the night while Randy and Pappy remain glued to the outside wall of the prison, waiting. As they wait out the night, Pappy tells Randy an urbanized version of the Brer Rabbit story starring Brother Rabbit (Thomas), Brother Bear (White), and Preacher Fox (Gordone). They show up in New York after having need to flee the South after killing the local sheriff after their house got repossessed and turned into a brothel. This sheriff stuff never comes back again, by the way. They seemingly bring along the sheriff’s daughter (Jesse Welles) as Miss America, naked with skin in the colors of the American flag. Or, she’s just a repeated image meant to represent America while also being the prostitute daughter of a Southern sheriff. These images don’t really make a whole lot of sense.

Anyway, the three end up at the church of Simple Savior, a fat preacher who sermonizes about the plight of the black man in America in dramatic displays dripping in antagonism towards white culture while passing around the collection plate for a war against the white race. He promises guns, tanks, and even planes. It’s all a con, though, and he’s just getting rich on the donations. Brother Rabbit ends up killing Simple Savior and taking over the operation, which ends up being the criminal epicenter of Harlem. Again, the connection between religion, the con, and crime might be an interesting one to explore in the black culture, but it’s just presented and moved on from. Bakshi has no interest in actually digging into anything he presents in any detail. It’s just surface level presentation before moving on to the next image designed to elicit simplistic emotion from the audience (usually some combination of disgust and revulsion).

Brother Rabbit exerts his influence on Harlem, attracting the attention of a police officer Managan (Frank de Kova) who punches a gay bartender in the mouth when he gets hit on. Managan ends up getting roped into a club where he’s drugged, dressed up in a dress and blackface, and then shot by uniformed police officers. And then he’s gone from the movie and the cops aren’t really a factor anymore. This is really my frustration with Bakshi writ-small. It’s a standout sequence that has…something…to say about anti-gay feelings in violence-inclined police officers, but instead of saying anything of interest, it chooses to simply humiliate the character and then move on. Also, it has almost nothing to do with the rest of the movie.

The real later conflict is with The Godfather (Al Lewis), a grotesque caricature of Italians that wants to wipe out Brother Rabbit. Using his effeminate, cross-dressing children, he tries to put hits on Brother Rabbit to kill him and wipe out his competition, but they all go wrong. The famous scene of the tar baby gets replicated at a big boxing match, but I have to talk about the boxing subplot that suddenly comes out of nowhere in the final twenty minutes of the film. Desperate to get at Brother Rabbit, the Godfather approaches Brother Bear and convinces him to fight in the boxing ring. There’s commentary from Pappy about how this is evil because it puts Bear up against other black men to fight. It’s an interesting idea, but, again, it’s brought up and dropped as quickly as it appears. There’s a whole movie to be had about something like this, where Brother Bear thinks he’s just taking a job doing what he does best while he’s actually betraying his friends and race while a war is brewing between the Godfather and Brother Rabbit, but it takes roughly five minutes of screentime, most of it dedicated to live-action footage of the fights (for some reason). Instead, it just happens real quick so we can get to the tar baby with all of the Italians getting consumed by the tar as they try to stab what they think is Brother Rabbit.

Like the rest of Bakshi’s work up to this point, there are a host of ideas that sort of resemble a whole, but nothing actually comes together. His animation still isn’t advancing and looks flat all the time. The increasing use of live-action background footage feels like both a stopgap and an effort to make the animation feel more “real”, but Bakshi’s puerile sense of humor clashes horribly with everything else he’s doing. The visual styles clash. The humor clashes. The ideas are all over the place. Nothing gels, and, much like something like Fritz the Cat, if it’s designed to do anything it’s designed to give a general impression of a particular cultural space and time. I suppose there’s a certain amount of success there within a handful of individual moments, but it’s limited by Bakshi’s complete inability to tell a story across a feature length feature.

Rating: 1/4


3 thoughts on “Coonskin”

  1. Coonskin is praised more for its audacity than its actual content. Which, now that I think on it, is also true of Fritz the Cat. It’s being positively ‘reappraised’ mostly because you literally couldn’t make a movie like Coonskin today. Hell, Spike Lee mostly couldn’t make Bamboozled and he’s black.

    Again, I’m really, really disliking the constant race war and racism in Bakshi’s work. This isn’t fun to watch, it’s not educational, it’s blacksploitation without the camp.

    Bakshi sure does like having straight character get hit on by gay guys, doesn’t he? And he loves having gay bashers get murdered. I’m starting to wonder of Bakshi isn’t a David Gerrold-level closet case.

    I was wishing Miss America would go all Rorschach on them all and wipe out every character in the movie by the end. That’s my head canon at least.


    1. That’s a good read. There’s plenty of room for audaciousness in art, but when that’s literally all the art has to offer, it essentially just becomes “scare the squares” and nothing more. If you want “scare the squares” from your art, you get what you want, but that ends up being a very limited audience.

      Bakshi never really learned how to operate outside of his underground comic start. He did end up trying in films like The Lord of the Rings and American Pop, but he leaned so heavily on other people that when he was left again to his own devices, all of his terrible narrative impulses just came raging back.

      It was about this point where I seriously started considering giving up on the whole exercise. I’m glad I ended up finishing because I can say I did and talk intelligently about Bakshi’s work as a whole, but I really didn’t enjoy much.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s