In our current world of heightened racial tensions, people are becoming more sensitive to what is and isn’t appropriate when referring to ethnicities other than their own, and few places are highlighting this more than attitudes presented in movies of the past being re-examined in a modern perspective. To that end, Mel Brooks’ comedy western Blazing Saddles has had a disclaimer added to its streaming on HBO Max.
The three-minute introduction by TCM host and African-American film historian Jacqueline Stewart talks about the movie and explains what might at first seem to be dated and offensive language and attitudes.
“As the storyline implies, the issue of race is front and center in Blazing Saddles, and racist language and attitudes pervade the film,” she says. “But those attitudes are espoused by characters who are portrayed here as explicitly small-minded, ignorant bigots. The real, and much more enlightened perspective, is provided by the main characters played by Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder.”
The film’s story sees a black railroad worker about to be executed for assaulting a white man instead appointed by a scheming politician as the sheriff of a small town, the intention being to create chaos and drive out its populace so it can be demolished and the valuable land sold. Instead, with the help of an alcoholic gunslinger, the new lawman wins over the townspeople and rallies them against the corruption that would see them driven from their homes.
As Stewart says, there is no intent for the film to promote racist attitudes. On the contrary, the whole point is to satirize Hollywood’s glamorizing of the Old West and attempts to paper over the prevalent racism both in Frontier times and in the ‘70s when this western was made. Even offhand use of the N-word is not designed to be taken seriously, but is used as a shortcut to suggest people’s backward attitudes.
Blazing Saddles, along with Young Frankenstein and Robin Hood: Men in Tights, is one of Brooks’ best movies, the latter even metafictionally referencing it, so it would be a shame if people experiencing it for the first time were put off by the deliberately provocative language used. Hopefully, then, having it placed in the right context will prevent any misunderstandings.