The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world it was socially unacceptable to make fun of racist idiots.
And that’s precisely what Mel Brook’s 1974 masterpiece Blazing Saddles does — presents racism in all its myriad forms, nakedly and harshly, so we can laugh at its absurdity and, hopefully, learn a little bit about why it exists at all.
The point of satire is to force people to face things often too uncomfortable to discuss in polite society — like racism — so the fear of its existence can be overcome and the thing itself can be put in a box marked “silly”. That’s not to suggest racism shouldn’t be taken seriously or that there haven’t been very serious repercussions because of the hate it’s inspired. But satire is one tool in the battle, one that defangs to defeat. Much like the kids in the Harry Potter world did when facing the “boggart,” for any millennials who might be reading.
Remember what Harry and the gang did when facing the shapeshifting boggart, who looked like the thing each person feared the most? They turned it into the most ridiculous thing they could summon, causing everyone to laugh at it, at which point the boggart lost the battle because it could no longer inspire fear, only laughter.
Blazing Saddles embraces that same concept.
Here’s Deroy Murdock talking about the film recently following a Fox News segment where a young social justice activist said she found it offensive and racist.
The Library of Congress judged ”Blazing Saddles” “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in 2006. It was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
This film concerns a black man (Cleavon Little as Sheriff Bart) who overcomes the severe, nearly fatal racial bigotry of a rustic town full of white people, mainly named Johnson.
The only way to present the adversity over which he triumphs is to present the adversity over which he triumphs. This involves the citizens of Rock Ridge very liberally hurling the N-bomb and other ethnic slurs.
“Good morning, Ma’am,” Sheriff Bart says to a sweet-looking, bonnet-wearing elderly woman (Jessamine Milner). “And isn’t it a lovely morning?”
“Up yours, n—-r!” she replies.
The sheriff’s pain is palpable. And the audience feels it, right in their guts.
But Sheriff Bart eventually beats the bad guys, led by state Attorney General Heddy Lamar (“That’s Hedley”), played by Harvey Korman.
The sheriff wins the confidence and authentic frontier affection of those who, days earlier, nearly shot him. And the prejudiced old lady becomes one of his biggest fans.
Across five decades, audiences have appreciated the inspiring moral of this saga: Courage, perseverance, brains, and love can erode hate, just as the Colorado River carved the Grand Canyon from desert stone.
The blatant racist tropes in Blazing Saddles are meant to make the viewer uncomfortable. Because THEY SHOULD make the viewer uncomfortable. And once the trope is there, in all its naked hate, Brooks uses the magic of comedy to make it ridiculous and defeats it.
Mark Twain did the same thing. In “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (and later in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”) Twain intentionally shoved the demeaning use of the n-word in the reader’s face because it was what the foolish characters in Tom Sawyer called the best — and arguably smartest — person in the book. It’s no surprise that book is just as misunderstood as Brooks’ film in a culture that desires to be offended rather than instructed.
But the use of irony is nothing to be afraid of children. Quite often it’s best used when it makes you laugh so you can defeat the thing that scares you most, about yourself, about others, and about the world we live in.