This week let’s take a break from the ongoing implosion of the man from Queens, even as sixteen ton weights, anvils, and rockslides continue to fall on our Wile E. Coyote of a pretend president. (And a new shipment from the Acme Dynamite Co. was just delivered by an honorable lifelong public servant and former US Ambassador named Bill Taylor.)
Well, kind of a break. I want to examine a movie from almost a half century ago that has something profound to say about how we got to this pretty pass.
YEAH, BUT I SHOOT WITH THIS HAND
In 1974, Mel Brooks directed two feature films, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein, both of which have gone down as iconic American classics. Most comedy directors would give their right arms to make even one such movie in a lifetime. It’s astonishing to think Mel made two, and in the same year. (In fact, he made them simultaneously, shooting the former in the daytime and working with Gene Wilder on the script for the latter at night.)
Of the pair, Young Frankenstein is my favorite (in case you care) but Blazing Saddles may be the more important.
I saw it again not long ago at Radio City with my wife and filmmaking partner Ferne Pearlstein, with Mel Brooks interviewed onstage by Kevin Salter. (Sign of the technological times: they showed it on Blu-ray, in a venue the size of a space shuttle hangar. Still looked pretty good.) “Interviewed” is a bit generous: the format was mainly an excuse for Mel to ham it up before an adoring audience, which suited us all just fine, though I hope Salter got a flat rate and wasn’t paid by the word.
If you haven’t seen it in a while (or ever), let me be the first to inform you that this movie wouldn’t get made today even if Steven Spielberg wanted to do it with Beyonce and Lady Gaga playing the Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder roles.
It isn’t just the voluminous use of the n-word (you thought I was gonna say “liberal,” didn’t you?) among other period transgressions. Yes, the film is firmly of its less enlightened time, to include homophobic jokes, retrograde sex roles, gags about African-American penis size and sexual prowess, and Mel Brooks in redface as a Yiddish-speaking Indian chieftain, all of which would be streng verboten today, pardon the expression. (It also includes Count Basie, Klansmen, and Nazis of course, without whom no Mel Brooks movie is complete.)
But it’s more than that. The whole picture is so freewheeling, anarchic, and playful, ending with a fourth wall-breaking scene of joyous comedic chaos worthy of the Marx Brothers or Jacques Tati—meta before there was even a word for it. When Easy Riders, Raging Bulls-type tomes are written bemoaning the decline of the auteur-driven American independent cinema of the 1970s, Mel rarely comes in for the kind of acclaim lavished on Altman, Rafelson, Coppola, Ashby, Scorsese, et al. But Blazing Saddles is as rulebreaking as anything those dudes ever made.
(Traditionally, among sniffling cineastes, Mel doesn’t even fare well when measured against his former Sid Caesar writing comrade Woody Allen, with whom he is often unfairly contrasted. Though Mel may have gotten the last laugh there.)
To call Blazing Saddles undisciplined would be churlish and miss the whole goddam point. Its gleeful mischief-making makes for a delightful bookend with its more restrained sibling Young Frankenstein. Though the two are usually thought of in tandem as the archetypical Mel Brooks movies, the latter was actually Gene Wilder’s baby, for which he recruited a reluctant Mel as a director-for-hire. But the alchemy was magical, in a Lennon & McCartney way. Never has Mel Brooks been kept on such a tight leash, reflecting Wilder’s rigorous vision for that picture. At the same time, Mel’s five-year-old-loose-in-a-tea-party energy shines through, lending the film a silliness that sits in beautiful contrast to its loving tribute to James Whale.
Sadly but tellingly, the two men never worked together again.
EXCUSE ME WHILE I WHIP THIS OUT
Blazing Saddles is among the most anarchic of Mel Brooks’s comedies. Indeed, in style it is not far off from his late period disasters, such as Robin Hood: Men in Tights (1993) or Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995), two in a series of bombs that almost marked a cringeworthy coda to his oeuvre, before he went back to a brilliant idea from the beginning of his career, that of staging The Producers as an actual Broadway musical, which was its original pre-cinematic ideation.
On Broadway, the kind of broad farce in which Brooks specialized—and that had fallen out of favor with movie audiences—found a deliriously enthusiastic fan base, resulting in one of the greatest ironies in modern showbiz. A movie telling the story of a deliberately offensive musical about Hitler that was intended to flop went on to become a genuine (but to some still offensive) musical about Hitler that turned into the biggest hit in the history of American theater (at least until a certain Nuyorican genius read Ron Chernow).
Ferne and I interviewed Mel Brooks for our 2016 documentary The Last Laugh, about humor and the Holocaust. (More recently, last May, we interviewed his biographer Patrick McGilligan, author of Funny Man: Mel Brooks, onstage at the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan, under the auspices of Kai Bird, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Executive Director of the Levy Center.) As Harry Shearer notes in our documentary, the 1968 film version of The Producers was a scandal because it was considered to be in “bad taste”; 33 years later, the idea had become anodyne enough to be a ginormous hit in the most mainstream entertainment venue this side of CBS-TV.
But it was not merely timing that made Blazing Saddles a lasting triumph and those others critical and commercial flops. Arguably, Mel was at the peak of his powers in 1974. His joke-a-minute, parody-heavy style was still fresh—prefiguring Airplane!—and he working with rock star collaborators like his co-writers Richard Pryor (who was also meant to star before the studio balked) and Andrew Bergman, and actors like Cleavon Little, Slim Pickens, and of course Gene Wilder himself (who on short notice replaced an ailing Gig Young—no joke—as the alcoholic gunslinger the Waco Kid).
Above all, the socio-political content of the movie elevated it above a mere yukfest, which is also not something you often hear said of Mel Brooks’s films (but is also true of The Producers). But watching it again, I was struck by a blindingly obvious epiphany, one not available to anyone in 1974:
Blazing Saddles is a prescient foretelling of the presidency of Barack Obama.
MONGO ONLY PAWN
Let me elaborate. (WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD.)
Blazing Saddles tells the story of the Old West town of Rock Ridge, whose redneck residents are scandalized by the arrival of a new sheriff, who is black.
The sheriff—named Black Bart, of course (this is a Mel Brooks movie, remember)—has been unwittingly dispatched to Rock Ridge by the buffoonish governor, played by Brooks himself, at the suggestion of his evil Attorney General, the mustache-twirling, Richelieu-like Hedley Lamarr, played by Harvey Korman. The idea is to drive the townspeople off their land in disgust so the railroad can come through, with kickbacks aplenty for the bad guys. (So not only did Mel Brooks foresee Barack Obama, he also foresaw Donald Trump and Bill Barr.)
In their outrage, the furious townspeople try everything they can to get rid of the new sheriff, from little old ladies slinging the vilest of racial epithets, to a brute force attack by former Detroit Lions defensive tackle Alex Karras as the horse-punching Mongo, to the honeytrap ministrations of a German chanteuse with a Biggus Dickus-style labiodental approximant. (“Fifteen is my limit on schnitzengruben, baby.”)
The aforementioned Teutonic temptress, Lili von Shtupp (look it up, goyim), is played by the brilliant Madeline Kahn—in her day, maybe the greatest American comedienne this side of Carol Burnett, and after Lucille Ball. (All redheads, fwiw.) It’s a joy to see her play this Dietrichesque sex bomb, sandwiched between roles as a pair of uptight and shrewish fiancées: first in her feature debut, Peter Bogdonavich’s What’s Up, Doc? (1972), a movie nearly as madcap in its way as anything Brooks ever did, and then again two years later opposite Gene Wilder and Peter Boyle in Young Frankenstein (although to be sure, she transforms from prim and proper by the end of that one). (NB for film nerds: Also check out her very first film appearance, in a short, the Oscar-nominated Bergman parody, De Düva, from 1968.)
But I digress.
Ultimately, of course, Black Bart triumphs, effortlessly outwitting the villains, Bugs Bunny style (literally, at one point). Cleavon Little brings a velveteen elan to the part (prefiguring a later euphemism, Wilder’s Waco Kid calls him a “a “dazzling urbanite”). But one wonders what the prodigiously gifted Richard Pryor would have done with the role, were the studio chiefs not too chickenshit to take a chance on such a revolutionary artist (and Pryor able to rein in his alarming cocaine habit). A hint is to be found in his subsequent collaborations with Wilder, such as Silver Streak (1976), Stir Crazy (1980) and the lesser known See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989), and Another You (1991).
Even as it is, Pryor’s voice is all over the film, Brooks and the other writers having wisely realized early on that a bunch of middle-aged Jewish tummelers could not plausibly script the Black Bart character. According to McGilligan’s book, it was also Pryor who encouraged the rampant use of the n-word, arguing that it wasn’t believable that the rednecked characters in the film wouldn’t have used it.
As an indictment of racism, Blazing Saddles ain’t exactly Do the Right Thing, but it’s powerful in its own way. If nothing else, it’s notable for having a black hero with a white sidekick in a “major motion picture”—as they used to say—and from a giant studio to boot (Warner Bros.)….. and this in 1974. It also tackles the issue of race head on, in a way that few so-called “serious” films of the period did—or have since.
But above all, looking back on it now from a distance of almost a half-century, it’s hard not to see in Blazing Saddles, defiantly silly as it is, a harbinger of Barack Obama and the sputtering racist anger that greeted him in in January 2009 when he arrived in Washington DC as the new sheriff in town. (Full disclosure: I briefly overlapped with Obama in high school in Honolulu, for just one year. Shockingly omitted from all of Barack’s books.)
Obama was attacked almost from the moment he came to national prominence—with a powerhouse keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention—and that hostility only increased as he secured his party’s nomination in 2008 and eventually won the general election and ascended to the presidency.
Obama’s victory famously caused even some Republicans, by their own admission, to swell with pride (prematurely, it turned out) at how awesome we were for having elected a black head of state, and only 134 years after ending slavery! (Ahem). But the epidemic of dislocated shoulders from patting ourselves on the back soon stopped as it became clear that lots of our countrymen were not so thrilled.
The Secret Service reported a 400% increase in death threats on the POTUS. He was subjected to scrutiny—and just plain attack—that no previous president in modern times ever had to endure, proving once again in almost absurd fashion that a black man in America has to work twice as hard as a white one to get the same respect and acknowledgment. He was attacked for being black, of course, and simultaneously—dishonestly—for not “really” being black, but actually biracial—as if he had a choice to identify as white in our one-drop society. (Because a bunch of white Republicans are genuinely concerned about gradations of African-American identity and are the true arbiters thereof). Recently, the renowned civil rights activist Donald Trump Jr. has assailed Kamala Harris on the same grounds.
Which brings us back to Blazing Saddles (which, according to McGilligan’s biography, President Obama told Mel Brooks he loved).
The angry reaction to Obama’s ascent among a not insignificant number of white Americans was a perfect real world realization of the shocked cry of the people of Rock Ridge when they first saw Black Bart, their new lawman, ride into town:
“The sheriff is a n—-r!”
IS BISMARCK A HERRING?
To have ever thought we had entered a “post-racial” society now looks like willful naiveté in the extreme.
Many white people in the US could never accept the idea of an African-American president. Some deluded themselves into thinking it simply could not be: he must have somehow vaulted into the Oval Office illegally! Slightly more rational others were able to fathom it, but still saw it as a sign of the apocalypse.
I saw that mentality vividly even among otherwise intelligent, educated conservative friends who nevertheless bore a disproportionate animus toward Obama. When pressed, these folks always insisted it was about “policy,” never race, even though they could rarely cite which policies they objected to…..and when they did, the policies were often center-right ones that had originated with Republicans themselves (such as Romneycare, er, I mean Obamacare).
Often the critiques were abstract and coded, revolving around intangibles like “leadership.” Which was like talking about a black quarterback’s athleticism versus a white quarterback’s intelligence. And as I say, this was among so-called “reasonable” Republicans. The dislike—outright hatred even—among more virulently hostile right wingers was far worse, of course.
I used to say that being called “racist” is the worst insult one can level in contemporary American life—that even racists don’t like to be called racist. That’s still true for many, as evidenced by the sputtering fury of many Trump supporters when confronted with the blatantly race-oriented subtext of some of their beliefs.
But by the same token, since 2015 we’ve seen that there are plenty of racists in America who are openly proud of it.
Not at all coincidentally, the Tea Party movement began in January 2009, right after a black guy raised his right hand and was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. Despite the pretense that the group’s formation was driven by an anti-tax stance—hence the name—its true genesis was self-evident and a lot more crude. A certain segment of the American public (hint: the ones who think Colin Kaepernick out to be deported, at best) never accepted the legitimacy of Obama’s presidency. The right wing fever dream that he would be proved to have been born in Kenya was the ultimate manifestation of that frustration: equal parts neo-Confederatism, back-to-Africa bullshit, wild-eyed John Bircher conspiracy theory, and clutching at straws for some quasi-credible reason to justify their frantic racist wish that he really could not be the goddam president, could he?
Ironically, it is Trump whose presidency is arguably illegitimate, given the degree of foreign involvement in bringing it into being. Of course, just saying that invites sneers and allegations of hypocrisy from MAGA Nation. It goes without saying that it’s a false equivalence: calling Trump illegitimate might be dismissed as just tit for tat, or payback, or a reversal of the tables that liberals won’t acknowledge, were it not for the Mt. Everest of proof to that end, proof that simply didn’t exist when that charge was leveled at Obama. Chicken Little saying the sky is falling is not the same thing as Londoners saying the same thing during the Blitz.
The right’s hysteria about Obama now confers on it the useful camouflage of saying reasonable outrage over Trump is the same thing.
Yeah, well, segregationists were mad over Brown v. Board of Education too—but it doesn’t put them on the same moral plane as Rosa Parks.
HOWARD JOHNSON IS RIGHT
Almost three years into the reign of Donald J. Trump it is now painfully clear that we vastly underestimated the hostility, both in amount and degree, toward Barack Obama in these United States.
I say that in full knowledge of the lynchings in effigy, the portrayals of the Obamas as monkeys, the poison of birtherism, and all the rest. Yeah, we knew there was a huge segment of racists and scumbags who hated this man for no other reason than the amount of melanin in his system. But few people imagined it was so pervasive that—in conjunction with an equally virulent strain of misogyny, the machinations of the plutocratic GOP, and the aid of Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin—it would eventually lead to the installation (I am loath to say election) of a manifestly unfit, proudly ignorant, criminal con artist and pathological narcissist who wears his own racism like a badge of honor and blithely foments it in his obedient followers.
So let’s be blunt. The backlash over Obama—the sense among some white people that they were losing control of “their” country, the desperate hunt for a reason to annul his election and legitimize the racist fury toward him, the attacks on him for everything from putting his feet up on his desk to wearing a khaki-colored suit to putting Dijon mustard on a hamburger—led directly to the rise of Trump. Trump himself is famously obsessed with Obama, toward whom he has an obvious inferiority complex that he doesn’t even bother to hide. He is plainly hellbent on undoing everything Obama did in office, from the ACA to the JCPOA and all the alphabet soup in between, and matching him for honors, particularly the Nobel Peace Prize. (Good luck!) Privately, his advisors have said that the best way to get him to do anything is to goad him that Obama wouldn’t do it (like launch an ill-advised military raid in Yemen that wound up killing 10-30 civilians, including at least one child and a US Navy SEAL).
Since Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017—you remember, when 17 billion people flooded the National Mall—the rule of the Trump administration has further laid bare the vicious racism that still underlies everything in this country. Every-thing. Could it possibly be otherwise given the original sin of slavery with which we as a country were born? Per above, we once imagined so, flattering ourselves to think we had collectively moved beyond that. But clearly we have not.
Trump’s entire political career is grounded in racism (of which his rampant xenophobia is but a subset). He rose as a political figure by spreading the rancid lie of birtherism. He announced his candidacy for president with a speech slandering Mexicans as drug dealers as criminals, drug dealers, and rapists. He trafficked in racist tropes throughout his run and into his administration, trading the traditional Republican dog whistle for a bullhorn, and found it worked even better. He collected fawning endorsements from the likes of the Klan and had to be strongarmed into a tepid disavowal.
In office he infamously tried to draw an equivalence between neo-Nazis and anti-fascist protestors, claimed there “very fine people on both sides,” spoke of “shithole” African countries, and pursued violent and draconian anti-immigration policies whose racial component is unmistakable, to name just a few of his greatest hits. Even now, when in trouble (read: always), he reflexively defaults to racist appeals to his odious base, who always have his back and thrill to such hatemongering and bigotry. Witness yesterday’s self-pitying, beyond-tone-deaf reference to the right and proper Congressional inquiry into his demonstrable wrongdoing as a “lynching.”
Earlier I recoiled at saying Donald Trump had been “elected” president, citing Russian skullduggery and other extenuating circumstances. Those still hold. But they don’t negate the fact that almost 63 million Americans did vote for him. (About three million less than voted for Hillary Clinton, I hasten to remind everyone, but for reasons too infuriating to review, that’s not how we choose our president.)
Please drink that in: 63 million Americans were insufficiently bothered by Trump’s wanton racism, among all his other ills, to think that the other candidate would be a better choice. I’m ashamed of that, and history is not likely to be more forgiving.
We are now a long way from a Mel Brooks comedy; what we’re in is more like a Michael Haneke nightmare. But the premise of Mel’s 45-year-old farce, with its blunt, clear-eyed treatment of the shameless racism in America’s collective DNA, is more instructive now than ever.
And there is a final irony. In the end, the racist local yokels in Blazing Saddles eventually see the error of their ways and rally to the defense of Sheriff Bart, whom they rightly recognize as their savior from the venal authorities who wish to destroy them.
Thus far, the American people have not on the whole proven as wise as the denizens of Rock Ridge.