Fritz the Cat may have lost one of his lives in the comics, but in his new movie, he has eight more lives left to go! While his wife screams at him, Fritz lights up a joint and reminiscences about what could have been.
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.
The working title was "Harlem Nights." Harlem Nights (1989) was later used as the title of a film starring Richard Pryor, who was a fan of Ralph Bakshi's film. Both films feature the crime racket in Harlem as a plot point. See more »
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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an exploitation film on the surface, but really about exploitation, and done in a crazy, free-for-all satirical form
Coonskin might be my favorite Ralph Bakshi film. Like the best of his work, it's in-your-face and not ashamed of it for a second, but unlike some of his other work (even when he's at his finest, which was before and after Coonskin with Heavy Traffic and Wizards), it's not much uneven, despite appearances to the contrary. Bakshi's taking on stereotypes and perceptions of race, of course, but moreover he's making what appears to be a freewheeling exploitation film; blaxploitation almost, though Bakshi doesn't stop just there. If it were just a blaxploitation flick with inventive animation it could be enough for a substantial feature. But Bakshi's aims are higher: throwing up these grotesque and exaggerated images of not just black people but Italians/mafioso, homosexuals, Jews, overall New York-types in the urban quarters of Manhattan in the 70s, he isn't out to make anything realistic. The most normal looking creation in looking drawn "real" is, in fact, a naked woman painted red, white and blue.
In mocking these stereotypes and conventions and horrible forms of racism (i.e. the "tar-rabbit, baby" joke, yes joke, plus black-face), we're looking at abstraction to a grand degree. And best of all, Bakshi doesn't take himself too seriously, unlike Spike Lee with a film like Bamboozled, in delivering his message. This is why, for the most part, Coonskin is a hilarious piece of work, where some of the images and things done and sudden twists and, of course, scenes of awkward behavior (I loved the scene where the three animated characters are being talked at by the real-life white couple in tux and dress as looking "colorful" and the like), are just too much not to laugh at. It's not just the imagery, which is in and of itself incredibly "over"-stylized, but that the screenplay is sharp and, this is key for Bakshi this time considering, it's got a fairly cohesive narrative to string along the improvisations and madness.
Using at first live-action, then animation, and then an extremely clever matching of the two (ironically, what Bakshi later went for in commercial form with Cool World is done here to a T with less money and a rougher edge), Pappy and Randy are waiting outside a prison wall for a buddy to escape, and Pappy tells of the story of Brother Rabbit, who with Brother Bear and Preacher Fox go to Harlem and become big-time hoodlums, with Rabbit in direct opposition to a Jabba-the-Hut-esquire Godfather character. This is obviously a take off on Song of the South with its intentionally happy-go-lucky plot and animation, here taken apart and shown for how rotten and offensive it really is.
Yet Bakshi goes for broke in combining forms; animated characters stand behind and move along with live-action backgrounds; when violence and gunshots and fights occurs it's as bloody as it can get for 1975; when a dirty cop is at a bar and is drugged and put in black-face and a dress, he trips in a manner of which not even Disney could reach with Dumbo; a boxing match with Brother Bear and an opponent as the climax is filmed in wild slow-motion; archive footage comes on from time to time of old movies, some and some from the 20s that are just tasteless.
Like Mel Brooks or Kubrick or, more recently, South Park, Bakshi's Coonskin functions as entertainment first and then thought-provocation second. It's also audacious film-making on an independent scale; everything from the long takes to the montage and the endlessly warped designs for the characters (however all based on the theme of the piece) all serve the thought in the script, where its B-movie plot opens up much more for interpretation. To call it racist misses the point; it's like calling Dr. Strangelove pro-atomic desolation or Confederate States of America pro slavery. And, for me, it's one of the best satires ever made.
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