By Manuel Cuadra and James Ellis
Blazing Saddles is a western comedy directed by Mel Brooks in 1974. While it was not received well upon release, it is now considered a comedy classic and the directors personal favorite among his movies. The film stars Cleavon Little as Bart, a black railroad worker who becomes the sheriff of little town called Rockridge. With the help of his partner, played by Gene Wilder, Bart thwarts a plan by the attorney general, Hedley Lamarr, to destroy the town. The movie is packed with racially charged humor and stereotypes, which makes it a very controversial topic. In fact, Mel Brooks has stated that due to the political incorrectness of the film, it could not be made today, nor was it approved by company executives at the time(Modderno). This humor, however, is what makes Blazing Saddles an interesting tool in the discussion of the Afterlives of Slavery. Humor reaches an entirely different audience than the dark, somber tones of many works that deal with the Afterlives of Slavery. This audience is not as likely to consider the harsh lives led by black Americans after abolition, and Mel Brook’s film is one of the few works related to the topic that they would see and enjoy.
Historic and Cultural Context:
The film takes its place in both the mythical West of 1874, and the societal realities of 1974, so that the Western and Modern ages converge on-set. On one hand, the movie takes its core thematic inspiration from the mythical American Wild West, in which frontier-hardened, white, male archetypes confront the dangers among racial and cultural groups in the region. In reference to this mythology, the movie confronts the reality of the historic American West, and its under-emphasized racial diversity, by mocking the underlying racism in the West. On the other hand, however, is the movie’s connection to 1974 in which it was made, complete with racial stereotypes about class, behavior, and societal role. In utilizing familiar stereotypes of the time, Brooks is able to play to subconscious audience expectations and mock them, thereby reducing the associated racism into ridiculousness. Notably, this time period is soon after the era of Civil Rights and Black nationalist movements, which carries with it both the improving self-image among black people for their identity, and the backlash among racial conservatives and bigots. The movie is ultimately connected to the past, as well as the 1974 present in order to make its commentary on the Afterlives of Slavery.
The setting of the movie and its core cultural context is that of the American West. Although the time period is not far from the time of slavery, the West itself nearly divorced from slavery in American mythology. The racial attitudes of the historic West, however, ranged from racialist white supremacy to patronizing tolerance of other races. Exodusters, the class of black settlers on the West, came to be seen as “political actors…who [aspired] to an equal political status that no other nonwhite group initially sought,” (White, 405) but are rarely present in Western mythology. Instead, the image of the American West mirrors the American exceptionalist values in which hard work had no replacement, “good triumphs over evil,” and “the best men prospered” (Baker 41, 34). In making Blazing Saddles, however, Brooks depicts the contrary, where circumstances define the outsets of people’s lives. The central plot highlights the disparity between the Western Myth and the historic reality that the movie reflects. Bart’s struggle to work great lengths and overcome his racially inherited social disadvantage is a case of the larger exoduster struggle of starting a new and welcome life. By repudiating the myth of the American West, Brooks also confronts the historic tendency to forget marginalized peoples for reasons other than their activism for their own rights, particularly black people. It is true that Bart’s struggle in the movie is for his rightful dignity, but this is more recognition than can be said of exoduster history, which is often largely forgotten. In total, the function of the mythical American West as the cultural setting is to establish the contrast between the image and reality of racial order in the historic American West. In order instead to portray a more realistic image of racial dynamics Western society, Brooks takes into account the expectations of the audience of his own time 1974.
Having made the movie in 1974, the Brooks had a ready supply of racially charged material from which to draw for Blazing Saddles. For instance, rather than the rugged settler image that Black Bart should evoke in the West, Brooks plays to the urban image of black people, going so far as to have Jim, Bart’s friend-to-be, describe him as a “dazzling urbanite,” without properly knowing him. With modern stereotypes of black people available to mock, Brooks can expose the ridiculous premises of discrimination and refute them in plot and image. To fit this end, Brooks borrows the image of lawlessness from his social atmosphere, and contrasts it against Bart’s lawful efforts to maintain order in Rockridge. It speaks to the cultural context Brooks exploits, that the plot conflict involves Bart proving that he can maintain the law as sheriff despite the lawless image the townspeople have of his race. Furthermore, stereotypes about supposed laziness, sexual aggression, and lack of culture are often invoked at the expense of black characters by their white counterparts, like when a townswoman fainted when Bart says “Let me whip this out,” referring to his speech manuscript. As innocent as the action was, it becomes a joke, and elicits a reaction from the town because of the stereotypes of sexual aggression that follow Bart as a black man. Public attitudes and environmental factors that lead to damaging stereotypes such as these, are the result of continued discrimination and dismissal, the Afterlives of Slavery. To draw the audience’s attention to injustices like these is the end to which Brooks utilizes the modern cultural context, and thus the tool with which he molds his criticism.
Apart from the negative elements of cultural context, however, Brooks also made the movie in a setting recently impacted by black activism during the Civil Rights and Black nationalist movements. These attitudes of protest for dignity and acceptance left their mark among black people to be sure. The rights movements gave traction to the activist mindset of achieving rights as opposed to accommodating ruling (white) classes for opportunity. This can be seen in Bart’s character function as a challenger of white supremacy, since he takes action against his railroad overseer, and has the entire crew of railroad workers vie for their equality. Moreover his characterization to fit this attitude is done earnestly, rather than in ironically, suggesting a promotion of common dignity in society in the movie and beyond. An accompanying element of black pride, which also gained traction in the years preceding the film can also be found in the movie. Like in society leading up to the movie, Bart and the other black characters of the movie hold to their identities and backgrounds as black Americans. The movie drops the apologist attitude in developing Bart’s course toward equality and acceptance, much in the same way that Black Arts activists theorized the “destruction” of white standards to enhance their own aesthetics (Neal 30). An early, but unignorable example is Count Basie’s Orchestra appearing on screen to give Bart a performance before he rides to his new post as Rockridge sheriff. A well-respected jazz company, led by a prominent and similarly respected black musician surely fits the contentment of Bart’s new posting, but to have one stick out in a desert is a deliberate presentation of symbol. As much as it is to fit the absurdity of comedy, the orchestra performs as symbol of Bart’s ownership of his cultural identity as a black man. Due to the anachronism of cultural symbols associated with this attitude placed in the American West, the effect is ridiculous, but in functioning for purposes greater than entertainment, the cultural symbols Brooks uses indicate the impact black activism had in the movie.
Themes and Style:
Unsurprisingly, race is a major theme of Blazing Saddles, and the way in which the movie deals with race is very different from anything made today. Rather than skirting around racial stereotypes and racism, Brooks confronts this theme directly, using every available opportunity to use racially charged jokes and throwing in the n-word haphazardly throughout the movie. While some argue that this reliance on racism serves to trivialize racial injustice of the past, Brooks intended to do the opposite. The “mugs, pugs, and thugs” that mock the minority railroad workers are all fools, the villain’s plan fails because he underestimated Bart, the black sheriff, and the townspeople who doubted Bart because of his race learn to respect him. The movie relies heavily on humor and irony to belittle racism, rather than trivialize racial injustice.
The racism depicted in the film is often outlandish and comically foolish. In the opening scene, Bart begins a beautiful rendition of Cole Porter’s “I Get a Kick Out of You” only to be interrupted by his white boss. The white man and his dim-witted companions proceed to dance spastically while hollering “The Camptown Ladies,” all to the amusement of the black railroad workers. Scenes such as this one are littered throughout the movie, and the audience is kept laughing at these moronic racists for the entirety of the film. This is analogous to the sentiment that Mel Brooks wants us to have towards all racists. Blazing Saddles teaches us to laugh at the ridiculousness that is racism. The movie is saying that, while America was once plagued by narrow-mindedness and bigotry, we can learn from our past foolishness.
In the midst of the fight for Rockridge, the unlikely partnership forms between Bart, the black sheriff, and Jim, the white gunslinger. Unlike the rest of the characters, difference in race was not an issue for them. They acknowledged their differences and immediately looked past them to develop a strong partnership which helped them triumph over the films villains. While the majority of the plot is fueled by race, Bart and Jim’s friendship transcends the racial tension that prevails the developing west.
Since the movie’s release, critics have both lauded and criticized it for the racially charged humor that it depends on. One side of the argument sees the portrayal of supposedly unalterably offensive stereotypes as a deliberate barrage of racist images masquerading as humor to be made more palatable. Moreover, critics often denounce the frequent, full-throated use of the N-word in reference to Bart, even though Brooks paints the characters who use it as fools in context. Other opinions that have supported the movie, claiming that in addition to providing frequent gags to keep the audience entertained, it made the racism of the American West too ridiculous to be taken seriously. Thereby, some opinions claim, Brooks exposes true racists who take the racism in earnest, and fail to understand the jokes made at their expense. Both sides of the argument on the racial commentary’s value agree, however, the movie makes racially charged jokes too outspokenly for modern audiences, and fails to meet new standards of political correctness. Altogether, the critical opinions on Blazing Saddles vary on its value, but agree that it functions as more than entertainment, with pointed racial commentary.
Public opinion on the movie has ranged from tentative, to indignant, to dismissive when claiming the movie is racially insensitive. Many have seen it as directly demeaning to black stereotype, rather than reductive to its racist perpetrators. Some have even leveled public action against public screenings of the movie among black patrons or employees. Two examples (both more than 30 years after the movie’s release) include a successful 2008 complaint against the University of Wisconsin, and an unsuccessful 2012 lawsuit against an Indiana police office. In the former, a black student who attended a seminar for working professionals complained about the seminar showing a clip in which black railroad workers were told to sing like slaves.The student earned a formal apology, a refund for the seminar fee, and the the discontinuation of the seminar altogether as compensation (“Race Relations on Campus”). In the other case, a black former police officer unsuccessfully filed a lawsuit, claiming that he was fired on account of his race, and cited a workplace screening of Blazing Saddles as evidence. The judge dismissed the case stating that the movie made “‘racism ridiculous, not acceptable'” (Meneghello). In both cases, common opinion pointed to a the movie being racially damaging, but the differing results show the uncertainty to this. Even so, both cases also highlight the problematic political incorrectness that spurs the debate over its ultimate worth. Brooks, himself noted that company executives had deemed the movie too offensive for release, unless unrecognizably altered (Modderno). Brooks further reflected that the movie “could never be made today” (Modderno). Brooks’s reflections on the movie, years later totally capture the essence of the public criticism of the movie: it is too politically incorrect to be valuable racial commentary.
Contrary to public criticism, supportive opinion holds that the movie’s comedic elements justify the political incorrectness as ridicule to real racism. “What’s so funny about racism is how the racists never get the joke” (Jordan) remarks the beginning of an expository poem on the movie’s reception, particularly the denunciations of it’s political incorrectness. As a comedy that serves a barrage of gags in quick succession, the movie tends to be dismissed as shallow entertainment. Supportive opinions, however, claim that this dismissal can be problematic leading to “a reinforcement of the social problems as individual faults rather than systemic ones,” or worse “a reifying of racist, sexist, classist, heterosexist, or otherwise hegemonic ideas” (Bonnstetter 18). Instead, critical opinion makes the case that the movie aims to expose the absurdity of racism, the hypocrisy of its advocates, and the “meaninglessness of the Western Myth” (Turner 50). The work song scene, cited by the student earlier, for instance, juxtaposes the grudging, but smooth singing of “I Get a Kick Out of You” by the workers, with the rowdy, unrefined jumble of singing and dancing to “Camptown Ladies” of their white overseers. It is to the end of mocking racist prejudice that Brooks utilizes juxtaposition of racial dynamics in this scene and others throughout the movie. Brooks, himself, claims that “j’accuse,” to accuse the audience of its own faulted ideas, to be his motive in comedy, rather than pure entertainment. Thus, whereas public criticisms of political incorrectness denounce the movie as insensitive, critical opinion tends to claim that the movie makes important commentary of racial prejudice, and highlights absurd irony in comedy to support their claim.
Baker, J. (2013). The classical western hero: Cinematic triumph in the early 1950s (Order No. 1522781). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I: History; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I: The Arts; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Full Text: History; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Full Text: The Arts. (1372291836). Retrieved from http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1372291836?accountid=11107
Bergman, Andrew, et al. Blazing Saddles. Performance by Cleavon Little, Blazing Saddles (1974), Warner Bros., 1974, ffilms.org/blazing-saddles-1974/.
Bonnstetter, B. E. “Mel Brooks Meets Kenneth Burke (and Mikhail Bakhtin): Comedy and Burlesque in Satiric Film.” Journal of Film and Video, vol. 63 no. 1, 2011, pp. 18-31. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/jfv.2011.0005
Jordan, A. Van. “Blazing Saddles.” Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 88, no. 2, Spring2012, pp. 196-198. EBSCOhost, http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=82825939&site=ehost-live.
Modderno, Craig, and Mel Brooks. “Mel Brooks Looks Back: ‘Blazing Saddles’ Could Never Get Made Today.” The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, 21 Aug. 2016, www.thedailybeast.com/mel-brooks-looks-back-blazing-saddles-could-never-get-made-today. Accessed 19 Feb. 2018.
Meneghello, R. (2012). Commentary: Recent legal battles provide lessons. Daily Journal of Commerce, Retrieved from http://prx.library.gatech.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.prx.library.gatech.edu/docview/920346149?accountid=11107
Larry Neal. “The Black Arts Movement.” The Drama Review: TDR, vol. 12, no. 4, 1968, pg. 30. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1144377.
“Race Relations on Campus.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 62, 2008, pp. 100–101. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40407386.
Turner, M. R. “Cowboys and Comedy: The Simultaneous Deconstruction and Reinforcement of Generic Conventions in the Western Parody.” Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies, vol. 33 no. 2, 2003, pp. 48-54. Project MUSE, muse.jhu.edu/article/396084/pdf.
White, Richard. “Race Relations in the American West.” American Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 3, 1986, pp. 396–416. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2712674.
Further Reading/Works Referenced
“Cleavon Little.” IMDb, IMDb.com, 2018, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0001476/?ref_=nv_sr_1.
Goering, John M. “Changing Perceptions and Evaluations of Physical Characteristics among Blacks: 1950-1970.” Phylon (1960-), vol. 33, no. 3, 1972, pp. 231–241. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/273523.
“Mel Brooks.” IMDb, IMDb.com, 2018, www.imdb.com/name/nm0000316/.
“Temperatures Rising.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Apr. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temperatures_Rising.
“Count Basie and His Orchestra.” The Count Basie Orchestra, Daniel Brouse, 2018, www.countbasieinconcert.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/1-2-7B2-25-ExplorePAHistory-a0h2z6-a_349.jpg.
IamaservantofthesecretfirewielderoftheflameofArnor. “GIF of a Scene Exploiting Racial Stereotype.” Imgur, Imgur, 4 Aug. 2013, https://i.imgur.com/uRGrg5W.gif.
Mheat. “GIF of Bart after Holding Himself at Gunpoint.” Reddit, Reddit, 9 Oct. 2013, https://i.imgur.com/u3IYq7h.gif.
Mr. Darko. “Cover Picture for the Film Blazing Saddles.” The Movie Log, Blogger, 17 Aug. 2012, https://afterlivesofslavery.files.wordpress.com/2018/04/0b6d4-blazing-saddles-1974.jpg.
Padre Steve. “Modern KKK Members in the West.” Padre Steve’s World…Musings of a Progressive Realist in Wonderland, WordPress, 8 Feb. 2013, https://padresteve.files.wordpress.com/2013/02/jpeoj.jpg?w=500.
TD Rideout. “Stillframe of Bart and Jim from Blazing Saddles.” The Mind Reels, WordPress, 23 Mar. 2014, https://mindreels.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/wilder-little-blazing-saddles.jpg.
TotallyRealNotFakeDonaldTrump. “MRW I Saw That Blazing Saddles Is on Netflix.” Imgur, Imgur, 1 Mar. 2017, https://i.imgur.com/bJe0LDT.gif.
“Mel Brooks”, “Blazing Saddles“, “Cleavon Little”, “Comedy”, “Afterlives of Slavery”, “Western(s)”, “Western Myth(ology)”, “Satire”