be a good sport.
Bob Dylan said it best,”Times They are a Changin’.” Everything is changing and we have to adjust in real times. Jokes that were funny yesterday are no longer funny today. The way that people from different backgrounds interact with each other is also changing. Artists were once charged with commentating on and capturing the times through whatever medium they chose. In 1974 America was struggling with it’s identity. All of our Civil Rights Movement heroes were dead, in jail, or strung out. The Vietnam War was coming to an end after so many lives were lost. Some began to think that maybe we are the ugly Americans. We are racist, violent and greedy. Blazing Saddles is a film that pokes fun at those that are unaware of who they truly are. It comments on race fin a way that was very original in 1974. It was the first film that asked the question, “are we sure we aren’t racist?” In some respects Mel Brooks succeeded with his film but he also fell a bit short. When the filmmakers had the opportunity to make their strongest statements, it felt like they settled for the joke. This is a comedic film, granted, but one of the greatest tools comics have is tension.
Blazing Saddles is a parody. The film parodies the American Western that most American males drew their notions of what masculinity meant. My grandfather loves John Wayne movies. I think McLintock might be his favorite. I tried to watch it with him when I was younger but it was too boring. I also didn’t see many people, if any, that looked like me on screen. He loved them anyway. Being a man was more than the gender that you were born with. It was a title that had to be earned, especially back then. “More than a century after the closing of the frontier – and despite the decline, from the 1970s onwards, of the western from the position of dominance that it held in American popular culture throughout most of the twentieth century – the most solidly American masculine types remain western icons: the cowboy, the rancher, the gunfighter, the frontier sheriff, the US marshal, the cavalry officer, even (with a different racial inflection) the bare-chested Indian warrior.”(Freedman.)
In Blazing Saddles our protagonist is a charismatic black sheriff. John Wayne was a grizzly old man who didn’t talk much or smile much. He was the embodiment of American masculinity. Sheriff Bart was played by Cleavon Little. He wasn’t white, he wasn’t serious, and he wasn’t the embodiment of American masculinity. Shortly after receiving his title as Sheriff, Sheriff Bart traveled into town riding on horseback. The people were anticipating a John Wayne figure and instead they got Sheriff Bart. While on horseback, the camera zoomed in on Sheriff Bart’s bag. It was a Gucci satchel. The sheriff had a man bag.
I laughed the most when people had to react to a black sheriff. The coded language and awkward body positioning around him was funny. It's funny to me in real life too. In Westerns the townspeople are supposed to be good. The hero usually protects these people from robbers, rapists, and murderers in stories like this so the assumption is that the people are innocent. In Blazing Saddles the townspeople weren’t worth protecting but Sheriff Bart does it anyway. He saves the day because he’s the sheriff.
1974 was the year before the end of the Vietnam War. President Richard Milhous Nixon resigned in the face of impeachment in August of that year. The Civil Rights Movement wasn’t the force that it used to be. In the mind of some, black people had won and racism would be no more. Black entertainers like Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby, and Sidney Poitier had gained more notoriety than those that came before them. Racism was out of style. Only squares were racist. This wasn’t the case. Overt racism was losing its appeal in the social conscience. In 1974, Boston was in the midst of a battle to desegregate schools. Segregated schools were outlawed in 1954 but schools in Boston were still segregated. There weren’t any signs like the Jim Crow south in the 50s and 60s. The city was segregated, a lot like Chicago. Neighborhoods were predominantly white or black and so were the schools. The local reaction reflected America’s true feelings about their black neighbors. “We’re good, but we aren’t that good.” It was about proximity. Eventually a judge ruled in favor of a bus initiative that would make sure that black students were able to travel to white schools in white neighborhoods. Times were improving but they weren’t changing.
This film comments on race a lot. The movie opens with a white prospect asking the black workers for entertainment. He asked them to dance or sing the way slaves did pre-Emancipation. He used the n-word one too many times but these were the 70s. Cleavon Little’s character begins singing I Get a Kick Out of You. “I get no kick from champagne,” he sings. He has a great voice and so do the other black actors on screen with him. They made the prospect character look stupid by showcasing their talent but they couldn’t exact revenge. Signing beautifully and saying the n-word aren’t on equal footing. Michelle Obama has this saying,”When they go low, we go high. Why do black people always have to go high?
The filmmakers were still in 1974 and there were still lines that black people weren’t able to cross, even in a film like this one. Sheriff Bart was the sheriff but he wasn’t the biggest “badass”. That part was reserved for Gene Wilder’s character, The Waco Kid. The Waco Kid had the quickest hands in the west and Sheriff Bart was a quick thinker. Instead of going toe to toe with Mogo, Sheriff Bart does one of the Bugs Bunny gags where he outsmarts the opposition. Bart hits Taggart over the head with a shovel in the beginning of the film and is instantly sentenced to death. Bart uses violence again later in the film. He and the Waco Kid roughed up some Klansmen behind a boulder and stole their costumes. I guess Bart can rough up the overt racists but everyone else is cool.
Studs Terkel wrote a book in 1974 entitled, Working. In this book he interviewed a police officer from Chicago named Renault Robinson. Amongst other topics, Robinson discussed racism in the Chicago Police Department and how racism effects policing. “In their opinion, black people are all criminals, no morals, dirty and nasty,” said Robinson explaining the mindset of white police officers in black neighborhoods. “So the black people don’t cooperate with the police and they have good cause not to. On the other hand, they’re begging for more police service. They’re over-patrolled and under-protected.”(Turks) 1974 is just five years after the CPD and FBI assassinated Fred Hampton on the West Side of Chicago. Prejudice affects policing. Sheriff Bart’s prejudices never affected the way he did his job. It’s admirable but is it necessary in a movie where everyone is uncomfortable because of the black guy? Sheriff Bart proves to be a better person than those that are against him but that isn’t that funny to me. It’s like Bart is playing by different rules than his counterparts. The most racist characters in this film have redeeming qualities. Remember that old lady that brought Sheriff Bart that pie. She was super racist and Bart laughs it off because she’s a harmless old lady. It feels like Bart is bound by the prejudices of others in the film and in reality. If Bart makes the wrong move he would reinforce the negative viewpoints that some already have towards black people. Sheriff Bart spends most of the movie proving to the people around him that not only is he just as good as them but he’s actually superior.
Mel Brooks is comedic genius. I would cite my sources on that but that information is well known. I watched Spaceballs before Star Wars. Robin Hood: Men in Tights was also written by Mel Brooks and its one of my favorites. It co-stars a young Dave Chapelle. For a white guy to produce, help write, and act in a film like this: it takes some courage. I respect him for that because again, it was the 70s. I think he along with the rest of the filmmakers did a wonderful job with the film. There were so many comedic bits that worked for me. Mel Brooks as the idiot mayor with the overly attractive girlfriend was a great character and the bit in the office was well acted by him. He dressed as a Native American which was daring because that could have gone poorly for him but he managed to make that bit funny.
He also missed as the main contributor to this film. The scene with Sheriff Bart and
Lili von Shtüpp didn’t really work for me. Maybe I’m a sensitive millennial but the slutty shtick didn’t resonate. Lili was an obvious parody of the seductress character in westerns but it didn’t work for me. After one night with Bart, Lili basically falls in love. The fetishization of black men on screen is always weird to me but I’m not sure if Mel Brooks is to blame for this scene from that standpoint.
Richard Pryor is second in the writers’ credits for this film. He was supposed to play Sheriff Bart but the studio wasn’t able to insure him because of his drug addiction. “Earlier Pryor biographies (and there have been at least six, by Saul's count) pointed to Blazing Saddles as a signature disappointment for the comedian, who called it a “thorn in his heart.” He had wanted to play the lead role of Bart, which ultimately went to Cleavon Little.”(Elder.) You can tell that Pryor’s fingerprints are all over this movie but Mel Brooks said that Pryor wrote most of the Mongo stuff. He was the representation for black people in the writer’s room but he doesn’t represent black people. He probably wasn’t offended by the use of the n-word but its hard to imagine Richard Pryor being offended by anything. I think that the n-word was used too much and when it was used it was misused. It seemed to be used for historical accuracy but what about the Gucci satchel? There really isn’t a point in using the n-word in this film because it doesn’t bring any humor to the scene. It makes characters irredeemable.
Blazing Saddles’ filmmakers tried to use the Superior Theory to make people laugh and I’m unsure if it worked. There were so many racist jokes that it was hard to tell who was laughing at what. Its tough to use the Superior Theory when dealing with race. I loved the acting in Blazing Saddles. There seemed to be a high level of commitment to character. From Madeline Kahn to Slim Pickens, there were some tremendous acting performances. Gene Wilder is the best besides Cleavon Little. Gene Wilder’s speech in the sheriff’s office was so well played. Gene Wilder brought a heaviness to the screen that was needed. Everyone was walking shtick. It reminded me of his Willy Wonka character. At the end of Willy Wonka we discover that this guy is really alone. Gene Wilder is still funny in this film but I really enjoyed when he wasn’t going for the funny.
If you’re equipped with the context of this country’s history with racism I think this movie is still funny. I can understand if people are offended by it because in some ways it missed the mark. There is no way this movie could be rebooted because the times we live in would never allow it. I would like to see a group of black filmmakers comment on race like this. I’d like to see a comedy made by women filmmakers that comment on sexism within this country. With times changing, these movies seem like a possibility unlike the 70s. If Richard Pryor wanted to make this movie himself I don’t think it gets made. If it wasn’t his dangerous freebasing it would be the color of his skin. Its unfortunate but I didn’t make the rules.