My friend Rich throws a holiday party every December, and has for many years now. This year, a bunch of us were talking about movies, and the conversation turned to ones from our childhood that we might not show our kids because values have changed—for the better—in ways that rendered certain films no longer appropriate. Someone mentioned Blazing Saddles
. That’s when I jumped in (I wrote
a post about this movie in 2008, although today I’m going in a different direction).
Wait a minute, I said. That movie contains one of the most powerful anti-racist messages of any in Hollywood history. The racist slurs you hear aren’t thrown around for their entertainment value, but to mark behavior as racist so that, when the harm that racism causes is ultimately punished, the viewers—who are also laughing their behinds off—fully understand the power of the storyline. Blazing Saddles
still resonates and works now because, in today’s terminology
, it “punched up.”
Directed by Mel Brooks, the movie is set in the Old West—1874, to be exact, and the protagonist is a black man named Bart, played by Cleavon Little. He starts out as a railroad worker, and the movie depicts the brutality of his bosses as well as their racism. When Bart fights back against this abuse, striking the foreman, he ends up sentenced to hang. Just before his execution, however, the movie’s chief villain, the corrupt state Attorney General Hedley Lamarr, decides to use Bart to carry out a complex scheme to commit grand larceny.
Because of quicksand (which almost killed Bart, thanks to his boss), the route of the planned railroad has to be shifted to run through the town of Rock Ridge. This would drive the value of that land through the roof. Lamarr figures a way to drive the town’s residents out and buy up the land dirt cheap. How, you might ask? Use his power, and that of the dim bulb governor who is his puppet to appoint Bart the new sheriff of Rock Ridge (the previous one was killed after the town was sacked by hooligans Lamarr had sent in an initial attempt to get the townspeople to abandon their land). Lamarr assumes that the all-white population of Rock Ridge—the people who Sheriff Bart’s racially progressive white deputy Jim (played by Gene Wilder) memorably characterized as: “simple farmers … people of the land. The common clay of the new West. You know … morons”—will be so offended by the notion of living under a black sheriff that they will give up and leave.
At first it looks like that’s exactly how it will play out. The corrupt rich guys win by using the fear of and revulsion toward black power felt by the townspeople to oppress the little guys of every race, while vacuuming up all the money for themselves. In the end, however, Bart discovers Lamarr’s plot and comes up with a brilliant plan to defeat the bad guy and save the town. However, the only way it can work is if the white residents overcome their racism and work with the railroad men Bart recruits—black, Chinese, Irish, etc.—to foil the scheme. As part of their alliance, the residents of Rock Ridge guarantee each of the workers a piece of land to homestead.
Long story short, Bart’s idea succeeds. The moral of the story is that the only way to defeat the corrupt millionaires is to create a coalition of the middle class and the working class of every ethnicity—and, notably, one that ensures proper compensation for those who had previously been denied access to opportunity. That last part is vital. There’s also a tactical lesson to be learned.
In the movie, the racist villains are not defeated because the non-wealthy racist whites realize that racism is wrong, and are shamed into abandoning it. What defeats racism is the fact that these whites realize their bigotry is hurting their direct economic interests. They realize that they are being played for fools by their real enemies: the ultra-rich who prey on their racial fears and anxieties, and use these as diversions to hide their real agenda. This actually echoes recent research on what can most effectively move voters today to embrace progressive candidates.
One other thing before I connect the movie to The Man Who Lost The Popular Vote and 2020 (after all, this post isn’t a review of a 45-year-old movie). I previously mentioned the slurs, and there are plenty of them (also, the movie does include a couple of instances of casual homophobic humor that do not hold up well. Being woke on race doesn’t always mean being woke all around).
In a truly raw scene, Sheriff Bart is walking in the street, and greets a little old (white) lady with an exaggerated, but sincere, attempt at politeness. “Up Yours, n*****r!” she spits back at him. The camera lingers on his face as his smile dies. You see the hurt in his eyes. The scene shifts to the sheriff’s office, where Bart’s fallen face stares blankly into the camera while Jim empathetically asks, “What did you expect? ‘Marry my daughter’?”
That line is not played for laughs. Sheriff Bart’s pain is real. Seeing the scene play out with his reaction and his perspective centered is crucial to its power, not to mention way ahead of its time for a movie aimed at a mainstream audience. The viewer cannot miss who is on the morally correct side of the exchange. Director Mel Brooks discussed the scene in a recent HBO documentary
, which I happened to catch just after the aforementioned holiday party in which Blazing Saddles
came up. The one-two punch of the conversation and the documentary got me thinking, and ultimately led to this post. Funny how coincidences work.
Brooks has spoken at length, many times, about the repeated use of that particular six-letter racist slur in the movie. One of the script’s co-authors was the legendary Richard Pryor. Brooks wanted
Pryor to play the lead role, but the studio nixed him because they were, in Brooks’ words, “scared of casting him.” Brooks says he was going to walk away but Pryor convinced him not to, in part because it would probably have meant the loss of a paid screenwriting job. As for the slurs, here’s more
So I called up a friend of mine, this guy who was a brilliant writer and the best stand-up comic of all time: Richard Pryor. I said, “Richard, read this, tell me what you think.” He read it and said, “Yeah, this is good … this is real. I like this.” I asked, “Right, but what about the N word? We can’t say this so many times …” “Well, Mel, you can’t say it. But the bad guys can say it. They would say it!” Then I asked him to come write it with us, and he said sure. That was how it started.
At this point, I expect that you see the connections between the racial politics of the movie and contemporary politics in our country. Playing on white racial anxiety and hate is what Republicans have long done, with the white nationalist-in-chief only embracing such tactics more openly than his predecessors. But I have a more subtle point to make than to simply point out those connections.
Earlier this fall, Berkeley law professor Ian Haney López published Merge Left: Fusing Race and Class, Winning Elections, and Saving America
. I reviewed
the book and interviewed the author for Daily Kos when it came out. López and his team carried out multiple surveys and found that what he termed the ‘race-class narrative’ was the most successful way to reach both persuadable whites and voters of color.
As I wrote in the review: “this narrative connects racism and economic inequality by emphasizing to voters that conservative politicians like Trump, but also those in previous decades like Ronald Reagan, have used racially divisive language to pit white Americans against Americans of color and exploit those divisions to win power and implement policies that benefit the economic elites.” López’s research demonstrated that this kind of message performed significantly better than either a ‘color-blind’ economic populist message emphasizing only economic inequality, or one that centers on racial justice in isolation, as a moral imperative.
On the specific matter that relates to Blazing Saddles (namely, that progressive victories occur when middle- and working-class whites are shown that the wealthy elite are practicing white identity politics and using racial fears to divide them from Americans of color), here’s López on how that played out among the respondents he surveyed:
Assuring voters that whites will benefit from activist government proved to be an essential element in generating enthusiasm. Expressly stating that whites benefit seemed to cut against two core themes of the Right’s story: that talking about racism really means blaming whites; and that addressing racism reflects concern for people of color but not for whites.
[snip] Clearly the race-class messages work best when they indicate that whites, too, suffer because of racism and stand to gain from cross-racial solidarity and progressive policies….Most whites now perceive themselves to be a racial group and wonder at least implicitly who threatens their group. The Right’s answer is people of color and their liberal enablers. The best Left answer is the billionaires using racism to divide us, white, Black, and brown.
[snip] We found that whites reacted more positively to messengers of color compared to white messengers when they heard a race-class message. The differences were often slight and more research is needed….An invitation to join a multiracial coalition as a welcome ally seemed more persuasive and reassuring when extended by a person of color. For nonwhite politicians and for organizers of color, this is important. It suggests they may gain rather than lose credibility with white audiences by talking about racism, but only when framed as a divide-and-distract weapon against all racial groups, whites included.
[snip] Naming whites as beneficiaries of cross-racial solidarity also increases
support from people of color. Recall that we tested this statement: “We need elected leaders who will reject the divide-and-conquer tactics of their opponents and put the interests of working people first.” And then we tested it again, adding at the end “whether we’re white, Black, or brown.” Looking at the racial breakdown, support for the racially inclusive version went up by 8 points among whites. It shot up by a remarkable 21 points among African Americans.
Why might people of color respond more positively to a message of cross-racial solidarity that emphasizes benefits to whites in addition to themselves? People of color seem to have more confidence in cross-racial solidarity when they understand why whites have their own clear stake to join in coalition.
López went on to connect his findings to noted scholar of racism Derrick Bell’s writings on convergence theory, according to which, as López explained it, “racial advances for African Americans occurred when racial progress helped major segments of the white community.” That’s exactly what happened in the fictional town of Rock Ridge.
Anybody who plans on voting against Trump in 2020 because of the immorality of his racism doesn’t need to be reminded of it by a Democratic candidate. But that doesn’t mean Democrats should ignore the matter of race in this campaign. In 2020, Democrats must learn from the research done by López, and from the insights on human motivation contained in the comedy of Mel Brooks, Richard Pryor, and the other creators of Blazing Saddles. Beating Donald Trump is no joke.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh's Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)