It was a Friday night and my husband picked a movie to watch for our weekly movie night. The title of the movie was Blazing Saddles, a movie directed by Mel Brooks a director who has many films to his credit. As I had my back turned to the screen making popcorn, I was shocked and speechless to hear the ‘N’ word used several times. The movie was only on for less than five minutes and these ugly racist words were being fired off without any warning or hesitation.
I quickly turned around and asked my husband why he would choose such a movie to watch. He looked at me and said it was a highly acclaimed comedy and that it would get better if we gave it some time. I decided to sit down and be open minded and give it a chance. I looked up a few reviews on my phone to see what others had thought of the movie and I was not shocked to see that others felt the movie promoted racism and was inappropriate due to its racist slurs and comments.
As the movie progressed, I saw a different side to the movie and I realized the direction that Mel Brooks was pointing the audience to. He was satirizing Hollywood’s classic western films, as well as the role of African Americans portrayed in these films in comparison to their actual treatment in the historical ‘wild west’. Blazing Saddles demonstrates the racism toward black people that was never found in the majority of western films, and he uses comedy to emphasize the ignorance of racism.
The western genre has existed since the start of the film era. This genre was beloved, and always guaranteed in capturing the hearts and attention of its’ audiences. According to Film Slate Magazine:
‘There is perhaps no other genre in film so geared towards American sensibilities as the western. While the elements within the western-the good vs. bad, the revenge scenario, or even the tortured loneliness of a hero can all be translated through different categories of film and to different cultures, it is the setting that makes the western so unique.’
As we approached the 1970s the western genre was losing its’ appeal and more filmmakers of that time were not interested in making western genre films anymore. Actors such as Henry Ford and John Wayne, who were known for their iconic roles as the tough cowboys were aging and beginning to show their wear. Filmmakers such as George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg were getting recognized for creating films that were changing the genres that audiences were flocking to. Mel Brooks took advantage of this decline in the appeal of this genre to create this satire. By using his comedy, he exposed the audience to a side of the true west that we did not get to see in the classics. He showed us the ugly side, the bigotry, the sexism and the violence that we always knew existed but had remained hidden. I do not believe this movie would have been successful if the die-hard western fans were still in majority. This movie needed audiences that were smarter and wiser, that no longer needed a white or black hat to distinguish the hero and villain roles, and who were quick enough to catch the one liners and quick wit of Mel Brooks and his writers.
Mel Brooks directed Blazing Saddles in 1974, this was less than a decade after the Civil Rights Act and six years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. School busing to achieve integration and affirmative action were also current topics. The Civil Rights Act was beginning to create changes in society that was creating discord among the public. This was a time for important conversations about how we as a society should deal with our differences. Mel Brooks Blazing Saddles did just that, not by using long speeches about racial harmony but rather by tackling race and racism with comedy and humor. In one of the movie scenes we catch a glimpse of a poster that reads: “Help Wanted: Heartless Villains For Destruction of Rock Ridge, $100 Per Day, Criminal Record Required, Hedley Lamarr, Equal Opportunity Employer.” Mel Brooks and his writers spared no ethnicity or racial stereotype. In the opening scene a work gang is getting yelled at by a boss while they try to drive rails for a railroad. One of the bosses (Lyle) tells them all to stop lollygagging and then punishes an Asian American worker for fainting from the desert heat by stating ‘dock that chink a day’s pay for napping on the job’. Lyle then asks the African American workers to sing him a good old ‘nigger’ work song. The men look offended, but then start singing “I Get a Kick Out of You” by Frank Sinatra. Lyle gets frustrated and says he want to hear “The Camp Town Ladies” or “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” But when the men look confused, Lyle and his gang start singing the song themselves, and eventually Lyle’s crew is performing the whole song while the African American workers are laughing at them. Lyle’s boss Taggart shows up and tells Lyle to stop singing and dancing and to quit acting like a bunch of ‘Kansas City Faggots’. As you can see, Mel Brooks and his writers were equal opportunists when it came to humor, insults and offending.
The movie’s plot is one of the western genre’s biggest clich?s. An evil railroad company wants to build their newest railroad right through a small town, and is trying to buy out its residents. The residents who won’t sell are intimidated into selling, by a band of thugs who were hired by the railroad company. The residents, sick of being treated badly need to hire a sheriff to save the day, but nobody is foolish enough to take the job. Hedley Lamarr, a greedy Attorney General convinces the state governor to send an African American railroad worker named Bart as the new sheriff, with the hopes that the residents will be outraged and flee their town. The New sheriff earns the town’s support, and teams up with an alcoholic gunfighter named the ‘Waco Kid’ to help stop the villains from taking over the town. This plot not only make fun of many of the classic western genres, but also pokes fun at ‘White Flight’. A term used to describe the large-scale migration of people of Caucasian descent from racially mixed urban regions to more racially similar suburban regions.
In Blazing Saddles, the townspeople are the most racist people in the film, and they are portrayed as idiots. This is demonstrated in the scene, where in order to stop the townspeople from lynching him, the sheriff points his gun to his head and pretends to take himself hostage. The townspeople fall for the trick, and beg him to let their sheriff go. In another more shocking scene, we see the new sheriff Bart strolling down one of the streets in the town when he approaches to greet what appears to be a kind little elderly lady, instead of a greeting, she confronts him with an appallingly ‘up yours’ nigger’ leaving the sheriff dumbfounded. Later after defeating one of the ‘bad guys’ that same little old lady returns to the sheriff’s office to give him an apple pie as a form of thanks, before saying, ‘And of course, you’ll have the good sense to not tell anyone I spoke to you?’ It is scenes like these that not only ridicule racism but reveal it for what it really is ignorance and fear. In the final scenes the movie becomes chaotic with actors fighting each other and breaking through the movie sets, revealing the whole movie was just a movie production. At this point the movie mocks homosexuals by exposing a set of a musical that is being produced. The entire chorus line of dancers including the director appear to be gay. Dom Delouise, playing the role of the director shouts out ‘watch me faggots’ in an effeminate voice as his dancers answer back with lisps, then suddenly the Blazing Saddle actors bust through the walls of the set and the gay dancers yell out ‘come on girls’ and join in the chaos. Mel Brooks was probably using this scene to expose the facade of Hollywood and its male stars. In
Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles was probably the first film to break all the rules. It was never meant to be taken seriously and is seen as a film that mocks itself and the western culture, yet the movie as a whole unveiled the reality of the times, the racial tensions that existed in the American Old West of 1874 and one hundred years later in 1974. The movie not only points out the inaccuracies of the Classic Western Genre it uses shock and awe to emphasize them. Not everyone is going to find this film appealing due to its type of comedy, but in 1974 this movie went on to make over $119 million dollars and the American Film Institute has ranked it as the 6th best movie comedy of all time.
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