Roy from the Synesthesia Podcast was asked to write something about Media and Race. He chose the film Blazing Saddles because it’s funny and relevant. Please excuse the uses of African American and Anglo American – academia you know.
Blazing Saddles, released in 1974, is a comedy-western satire directed by Mel Brooks. The timeframe of the film is 1874. The United States is wrapped up in urbanization, and the fictional town of Rock Ridge is about to become a rail stop because quicksand ruined the original plan. The Attorney General, Hedley Lamarr, plans to use this change to make himself millions of dollars by swindling the townspeople out of the land. Preying on their racism, he cons the governor to decree that an African American be sheriff of the all-Anglo town. Because they are all white and named Johnson, they do not take to the sheriff at first.
Sheriff Bart normally would be the victim in a story like this, but Brooks is a master satirist. Early in the film, the work detail boss, Lyle, wants the group of African American track layers to sing a spiritual. Bart uses the moment to trick the group of Anglos to sing one themselves. During his introduction to the Johnsons of Rock Ridge, Sheriff Bart has to trick the crowd into putting their guns away after learning he is African American. He beings to earn his stripes with the community when he arrests the town menace, Mongo, for bullying the people and disturbing the peace. Repeated tries by Lamarr to ruin Sheriff Bart fail, and he, former public drunk the Waco Kid, and the townspeople eventually foil the plot and save the town. As a dominant African American male, Sheriff Bart did not play a stereotypical role. However, many of the peripheral players: the all-Anglo townspeople, politicians, and evildoers all played stereotypical roles in the film.
Because of the story’s plot, the African American characters were initially assigned stereotypical roles. They were the railroad workers who worked in hot conditions for low wages by oppressive Anglo Americans. They looked to Bart for leadership, but they were not portrayed as stereotypical helpless people. The women in the film were portrayed as weaker objects. In the beginning, two men were beating a woman in Rock Ridge in the daylight. Later, Lamarr slapped whore Lili von Shtupp in the face when he did not like what she had to say. Von Shtupp also becomes a subordinate to the stereotypically well-endowed and virile African American male after a one night stand. Both groups of men (and a group of homosexual men) were referred to as faggots by railroad boss Taggart and show director (and presumably homosexual as well) Buddy Bizarre. Although these scenes were set up to satirize such relationships in earlier films, no group was spared in this film.
Today, this film would never be made. Because of political correctness, this movie would never have been greenlit and groups would line up to admonish the film if someone had made it. The jokes would have been equally inappropriate, but the joke would not have worked as well with today’s audience. The fact that Brooks is not racist, misogynist, or homophobic would not have saved him or many of the actors from a media firestorm. Thankfully, Brooks deftly handles such crude humor and makes an enjoyable film to laugh at hate and the simple-mindedness behind it.