Coonskin, produced under the titles Harlem Nights and Coonskin No More… and later released under the titles Bustin’ Out and Street Fight, is a movie that takes a deep look into the race relations of America during the time of it’s release 1975. A mix of live action and animation, the premise of the movie on the most basic of levels is about two black convicts breaking out of prison. One old, who tells a story and one young, both waiting for two friends, on the outside, who are going to help them escape.
The opening song to the film is a “Coonskin No More” or “Ah’m a Nigger Man” by Scatman Crothers, who also plays the old story-telling convict. The song gives way to a southern preacher, preaching to himself in an empty church. The preacher meets up with Samson, played by Barry White, and the two of them embark on a trip to help their friend escape from prison. Before embarking on their trip the two have a quick conversation.
“It’s them crackers shootin at us on the way in that’s got me worried,” says the preacher.
“Shit… we’ll shoot back,” replies Samson.
“What am I gonna do, I ain’t got no gun!”
“Preacher, you just cuss and scream at ’em.”
“What kind of sermon you want me to preach ’em.”
And with that the preacher erupts into laughter and they begin their trip.
Inside the prison, some 300 miles away, Randy, the young inmate and Pappy, the old inmate, are preparing for their impending escape. They are sitting outside the base of the prison wall, waiting for Samson and the Preacher to come. Apparently, Samson and the Preacher are going to crash through the outermost wall of the prison complex and while the crackers (the prison guards) are shooting into the night, they will be on their way to freedom.
On their way, Samson and the Preacher are stopped at a road block. They just shoot the cop who stops them and keep on going. Meanwhile, Pappy starts telling Randy a story about three guys just like Randy, Samson and the Preacher that he used to know and he introduces them. Brother Rabbit, “as smart as you are he was and as mean as you is, he is,” and “Brother Bear, as big as we was, that’s how strong he was,” and “Preacher Fox, as wild as he was, that’s how wild he was.”
These descriptions, allowed for the animators to draw them as their anthropomorphic namesakes. From here on out, there are two stories going on. Samson and the Preacher going to free Randy and Pappy, shot in live action and the story of Brother Rabbit, Brother Bear and Preacher Fox, which is animated.
The institution of three friends in two stories allowed for the same actors to do voices of their respective characters. Samson, Barry White voices Brother Bear, the Preacher voices Preacher Fox and Randy voices Brother Rabbit.
The animation begins with Brother Rabbit, speaking to his father’s grave about why he and the others are leaving town. When he’s done, Preacher Fox tells the headstone not to worry, he’ll keep watch over Rabbit and Bear. Before leaving they head back to what was their house, now a whorehouse to grab their money and leave. But they can’t find Blue, to get their money. The boys comp the Sheriff, but Blue has enlisted the sheriff’s daughter as a whore and when she comes out, the Sheriff starts shooting and the boys kill him and high tail it out of there.
In the car, they decide, they’re done with “white country” and they decide to head to Harlem. At the mention of Harlem, the movie drops it’s animation and pans toward a lone trumpet player playing in the streets. Transitions like this don’t really exist outside of the Bakshi universe, but I don’t know why. They fit within his movies, why can’t they elsewhere? But they don’t.
The next scene is a brilliantly animated monologue of a woman with her baby, talking about her man, how they met and why he left. This is a mix of animation and animated line drawings, doubling to visually tell the tale she is speaking. It’s something unique, that although it may seem out of place to some, seems to fit right in to me. There’s an irony to this monologue within the movie, as it’s about her man leaving Harlem, where as our main characters are on their way there.
When the boys finally get to Harlem, they seemed to be disappointed. They see Old Man Bone, digging in a trash can, talking about how he hasn’t seen “a white for a hundred years” and celebrating as he finds a natural cotton sweater. The Preacher doesn’t understand Old Man Bone, but Brother Rabbit says that Bone’s father was a slave and some brothers never come around.
“Just as Miss America,” he finishes. As the scene changes to an animated black man standing next two a blonde clad in stars and stripes towering over him, as least double his height. The black man is talking to Miss America about how their relationship has progressed over the last few years, but it’s to no avail, Miss America just kicks him down and beats him up.
The boys aren’t too keen on Harlem, but Brother Rabbit wants to see what else is going on, so they keep on walking. They find a nightclub and ask what’s going on. This is where they are introduced to the Black Revolution and Black Jesus, to wit the Reverend Simple Savoir, who runs the revolution is “cousin” to. “He gives people the strength to kill whites,” is what they are told of Black Jesus and the Preacher gets ecstatic.
The boys continue questioning about “killing any whites”, while the scene pans to Black Jesus sitting on a throne of skulls. He’s having a conversation with his assistant, saying that the crowd is “ready for their religion.” Black Jesus is concerned with how he looks before he goes on stage to perform. Now this is a little side note in a picture about race. It is here, that Bakshi as the writer and director has taken a little direct jab at religion, but I’ll let you decide how harsh he’s being.
Our boys still aren’t quite buying, “Black Jesus,” but before they get to blows with the regular crowd, Black Jesus starts his performance. Did I mention he performs in the nude? Preaching and dancing, “you all black niggers, black is tough, black is together, black is sweet, black is sharp, black is a Cadillac, black is pigtails, all black. White is pale, [hell, is sounds like he could be saying pale or hell, I’m not sure.] the cop is white, the rent is white, the landlords white, your pain’s white…”
You get the point and as he preaches there are shots of a live action audience. As he screams, “join the revolution,” at the end he is hoisted up in front of a huge cross and when he gets to the top, three photographs come down, John Wayne, Elvis Presley and Richard Nixon. Black Jesus shoots all three photos to oblivion for his finale and the fragments of those photos rain down like confetti. At this point the Reverend gets up, thanks everyone for “showing up” and they pass around a basket.
When it gets to our three main characters, they are out of money. Brother Rabbit asks if they are “sure that money is to kill whitey,” and when that is confirmed, they take from the basket and say that they are going to join the revolution and buy their own guns. Brother Rabbit gets their congregation up in arms and then leaves. As they are walking down the street, Brother Rabbit states that, “it’s tough enough fighting Miss America without bullshit from our own brothers.”
I wasn’t alive in the 1970’s but the statement isn’t just about race. Most causes have infighting within their ranks, most of the time to the detriment of the cause. Pick a cause, any cause and Rabbit’s statement could be relevant to that as well. It’s a hard truth to accept sometimes, but it is a truth. A truth and a lesson to be learned.
The next scene is of Miss America getting getting shot at, telling the black man with that he’s won. Enticing him to have his way with her, spreading her legs for him and then shooting him from her female regions, to which he says, “oh, she got the clap.” It’s a continuation of the scene before, but it’s just a hard look at race relations. How close we can come to acceptance, only to forget we still have further to go.
Meanwhile, the boys are having a few drinks on the house, and the Preach just keeps talking. Bear asks him,”why don’t you shut up?” “Because I have an electric mouth,” is the reply. There Bakshi does it again, with serious content and lesson to contemplate from the past two scenes, he interjects humor to lighten the movie. It’s classic Bakshi.
The Preacher continues asking why they’re here and Brother Rabbit says, “the longer we wait, the longer we gonna end up like, like Malcolm and King did.” A woman agrees, it’s the woman from the monologue, but she’s called out for hanging with “down home trash.” This escalates into a brawl of sorts around Bear and Rabbit, while the Preacher escorts the woman home. Bear watches Rabbit get dragged into a back room, where Black Jesus and what appears to be a white accountant are waiting.
“You and you’re friends have cost me and my revolution too much fucking trouble,” is the first thing Black Jesus says to Rabbit. The accountant says, “the trouble with you blacks is, you’re too dumb to know when you’re in big trouble, I don’t want you talking to him Savior, kill him!” At this point, Rabbit starts to beg for mercy asking him not to throw him out the window. This is the idea that they take, apparently forgetting that they’re on the first floor. And when the ruse is played, they chase after him. But Bear has handled the crowd inside and they’re ready and waiting. Rabbit and Bear shoot Black Jesus and his henchman. This scene also gives us the knowledge, that Simple Savior and Black Jesus aren’t cousins, they are the same person.
Then the news spreads that “the Savoir was killed by a Black Rabbit.” Rabbit took the funeral as an opportunity to “tell Savoir’s boys he was taking over all the rackets.” The funeral is somewhat of a calamity of errors, but Rabbit let’s his be known, “black racket money stays in Harlem. No more Mafia, police, mayors, senators, judges or presidents. It’s our money up here, let’s keep it.” The boys agree, but tell him he has two problems, a cop named Madigan and the Mafia, “kill’em will join you. If you miss, we’ll kill you.”
If he’s to prove himself, he’s to prove himself. Rabbit goes after Madigan first then the Mafia. Madigan is heading towards Harlem, while Rabbit is cleaning up the Savior’s rackets. Madigan’s first stop is to get his cut from a gambling den, but it appears Rabbit already took his cut. Then on to the next place where Rabbit has also picked up Madigan’s cut. Lastly, he ends up at a bar, where the stripper offers him a drink on the Rabbit, which is spiked. The stripper is animated at first, but her striptease is shot in live action. The drugged Madigan is taken to a homosexual man, where he is injected with something and his face is painted black. After having one nasty trip he sees his boys having been torn apart. Shooting wildly into the night, other cops show up and he is shot. Apparently, it doesn’t pay to be a homophobic racist cop working as a bag-man for the Mafia. One down for the Rabbit, one to go.
Then back to Randy and Pappy at the wall. Randy is concerned that Samson and the Preacher haven’t showed yet, but Pappy keeps him at the wall, it’s the safest place for them to be and Pappy wants to finish his story.
Now, it’s time for the Rabbit to go after the Godfather. There’s a story told by a black man, about a white family moving out of an apartment, he runs to the apartment and “there’s three niggers jumping on the fire escape and three more inside.” I’ll paraphrase the rest by saying once they moved in “three million Jews” moved out and they got the whole neighborhood. The man telling the story, then dances in front of Miss America singing the original song from the introduction of the movie. Miss America calls rape and the man is hung.
Next we see the insides of the Mafia. There seems to be infighting among the Mafia families, because the Godfather can’t control the Rabbit. So the Godfather calls for a hit on the Rabbit. The Mafia is displayed in an odd way. A small clown, naked women, and a bunch of homosexuals and cross-dressers as part of the family. I’m not that familiar with the Mafia, but for some reason this portrayal seems, ironic in some way. When Mario, the small clown, goes to gather the family to announce the hit he runs into two of the homosexuals in the family fooling around in a garbage can. One of them says, “there’s nothing wrong with sex, if you don’t get excessive with it.” It’s another truth, unrelated to the story at hand, but relevant to society at the time, and probably still relevant today.
The son Sonny is chosen for the contract on the Rabbit, paints himself black and plays guitar outside of a club. He gets Rabbit’s attention, says “Greetings from the Mafia,” and shoots Bear, not the Rabbit. While trying to make his getaway Rabbit shoots him, he crashes and that’s that. Sonny’s funeral is held on an empty subway car. When he’s returned home, his mother is heartbroken.
Bear wasn’t sure what to do after being shot. So he decided to find Preacher Fox, who it turns out opened a whore house. When Bear shows up, he’s stripped of his clothes and married by Fox, who says he’ll divorce them tomorrow. Bear and the woman agree, and the Fox presses a button and the two fall through the floor to a bed and consummate their marriage.
The next scene is of Fox and the Godfather, it seems as though Fox is running with the Mafia for the protection of his establishment. Fox tries to give the Godfather his monthly kickback, but the Godfather tells him to keep it, he wants more. He wants the Rabbit. Fox tells him a plan, that if he handles Bear properly, Bear can deliver the Rabbit. So the Godfather makes Bear a heavyweight champion boxer. This plan makes the Godfather happy and he dances with his wife, with photographs and his wife tries to kill him to protect her sons. But she’s shot before she can shoot.
So the plan goes into action, Fox and Mario, the small clown meet with Bear. Bear doesn’t quite think it’s on the level, but his wife convinces him to stick it out and they dance. After the dance, there is a live action white couple talking to Bear’s woman about how wonderful it is to have black people in their establishment. The conversation is awkward, as I expect it would be. While that’s going on Fox tries talking to Bear about becoming a heavyweight boxer. Mario comes over to join the conversation. Bear still not thinking this is all on the level is posed a question by Marion, “you think you’re going to save your race all by yourself?” Bear’s woman convinces him to say yes, and so Bear became a boxer for the Mafia.
The next thing we see on our screens is men of all races being knocked out by and off-screen Bear, the Heavyweight Champion of the world, who is crowned by no other than Miss America. She ends up at Rabbit’s bar telling him about Bear’s exploits and letting him know he’s working for the American Mafia. Miss America seems to think that Rabbit should have a fighter fight bear. His boys seem to agree, going one step further they sing, “we need a championship fight with Bear or every niggers screwed.” So, Bone Man comes to the rescue saying that he’ll fight Bear. The scene ends with Rabbit and Bone Man being held in Miss America’s palm, she now being animated ten times their size.
The fight is setup between Bear and Bone Man. Sitting ringside is the Godfather and a dummy Rabbit. During the fight, Godfather’s men stab the dummy and a series of amazing animations tell the tale of the Godfather getting tarred by the dummy made of tar. Rabbit lights some dynamite and Fox, Bear and Rabbit get out of there before the Godfather and his henchmen explode.
In the car, Fox and Rabbit come clean to Bear about the plan. The car their driving is a live action shot of a Cadillac driving down the street which fades nicely back to Pappy laughing at his own story, now sitting at the base of the prison wall in daylight, with Randy standing next to him. There still waiting for Samson and the Preacher, sneaking around the wall. When Samson and the Preacher drive through the field and approach. Pappy gets hit in the leg, but Randy helps him and they get through, to the car, although Samson is shot in the process. Into the car they get and off they go.
And with that, Pappy’s story is told and the two men escape into the world.
Coonskin is written extremely well. It has an amazing, almost perfect, mix of live action and animation.
The music, as with all Bakshi films, fits the tone of the scenes it is married so well, it’s like they were written for them and not all of them were. “Coonskin No More” or “Ah’m a Nigger Man”, the opening song, which has lyrics quoted by various characters throughout the movie was written by Bakshi himself. But there are just songs he picked that fit so well.
You can’t talk about Coonskin without talking about race. Black, White, Italian, Jewish, it doesn’t matter, you can’t talk about Coonskin without talking about race. The 70’s were a different time almost, it seems, a lifetime ago, but the sentiment of this movie is so immense that the truths therein hold true today. Some to a lesser extent than others, but still, looking at America, unless you’re looking through rose colored glasses, we still have a way to go. Race relations are still a huge problem in America.
The other important takeaway from this film, are the little lessons. One specific, that I feel everyone should learn is that you can’t fight a cause, whilst there is fighting within that cause. It slows down the cause almost to a stop. There will always be disagreements, there will always be those hungry for power or greedy for money, but if you can put those hungers and greeds aside, your cause, no matter what it is, will be better off.