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A multi-layered satire of race relations in America. Live-action sequences of a prison break bracket the animated story of Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear, and Preacher Fox, who rise to the top of the crime ranks in Harlem by going up against a con-man, a racist cop, and the Mafia. Written by
Alan Smithee, Sr.
Man in Blue:
Man in Yellow:
Alright, I'm gonna give some example: I heard that 350 white folks committed suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. And out of the 350, there was two that was niggers.
Man in Blue:
And one of them was pushed.
Man in Yellow:
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Randy (Philip Michael Thomas) and Pappy (Scatman Crothers) escape from prison and await a pick-up from their friends Sampson (Barry White) and Preacherman (Charles Gordone). Pappy begins to tell a strange story about three crooks, Brother Rabbit (voiced by Thomas), Brother Bear (White) and Preacher Fox (Gordone), who rise up throughout the Harlem crime ring. They come up against an evangelistic maniac who teaches his followers to kill whites, a crooked white cop with a hatred of Brother Rabbit, and a fat, Italian-American, Godfather-type who put out a contract on the trio.
Ralph Bakshi, one of the most revolutionary cartoonists in recent times, had a long history with the making of Coonskin. He experienced segregation first-hand growing up in Brooklyn where he was forced out of an all-black school due to the fear that the whites may discover it and cause havoc. These racist attitudes seem to have left their mark on Bakshi and he wanted to satirise it brutally, leading to the birth of Coonskin, a film that was picketed and protested against by various groups before any screenings of the film had been arranged, and a film that remained so misunderstood by many until recently.
Bakshi savagely attacks stereotyping and racist iconography by using, well, stereotyping and racist iconography. He employs characters in minstrel show blackface that were so popular in Civil War-era America, and portrays the black characters as loud, crude and violent. Yet no one is safe here - homosexuals, Italians, white-trash, Jews - all are portrayed as wildly over-the-top stereotypes. Bakshi conquers the problem by facing it head on, exaggerating it ten-fold, and then throwing it in our face. If you don't get satire or if you completely miss the point of Coonskin, then this is possibly the most offensive film ever made.
The animation is crude and dirty-looking, but I believe this was Bakshi's intention. By giving it a grimy, almost sloppy feel, he brings the story closer to the street, where his characters live out their lives. The mixture of animation set against real backdrops evokes Disney's still-banned Song of the South (1946), a film that Disney are so ashamed of due to the fact that it could be construed as racist, that they placed the ban on it themselves. The film is also quite strange, jumping between different styles and tones, and the result is as often confusing as it is mesmerising.
They are some truly inspired moments, such as the scene when our animated trio enter Harlem (the "home to every black man") to be greeted by a wailing saxophone in the street, as well as Scatman Crothers' rendition of Ah'm a N****r Man over the opening credits. I would recommend anyone with a fleeting interest in racial history to watch this film as long as they can stomach the viciousness of the satire, as it is as powerful as it funny, and as smutty as it is sophisticated. How this film was managed to be made escapes me, and how it was made by a white man simply perplexes me. Essential viewing.
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