The Arty Semite

What We Can Learn From Mel Brooks About Racism

By Eitan Kensky

  • Print
  • Share Share

“Blazing Saddles” is generally regarded as Mel Brooks’s best movie: It was ranked sixth on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American comedies and it was nominated for three Academy Awards. “Best,” though, is a relative term. Brooks’s Borscht Belt-meets-absurdism style is so unique and so indelible that what we call the “best” is usually the first of his movies we fell in love with.


It’s safer to say that “Blazing Saddles” was Brooks’s most timely movie, even his most serious movie. And it’s as safe to say that there wouldn’t be a Mel Brooks installment of PBS’s “American Masters” (premiering May 20; check local listings) without “Blazing Saddles.”

The opening scene is terrific and justifiably famous. We see a mix of Chinese and black workers pounding hammers under the desert sun. Their vicious and idiotic white overseers demand they sing spirituals like they did when they were slaves. The workers huddle, break apart, and slowly we hear a sweet, beautiful voice: “I get no kick from champagne.” Almost before we can process the joke, Brooks lays a second one atop the first: the black workers join in, harmonizing with the lead singer. This isn’t one person singing Cole Porter; this is a full, sophisticated a cappella routine. Brooks continues to add inversion after inversion, but the jokes work because the first few bars of that unexpected, anachronistic song say so much about racial ignorance.

Coming less than a decade after the Civil Rights Act, “Blazing Saddles” exploded white Americans’ fears of integration and affirmative action. (Just before the climax, we see a poster reading “Help Wanted: Heartless Villains For Destruction of Rock Ridge, $100 Per Day, Criminal Record Required, Hedley Lamarr, Equal Opportunity Employer.”) The brilliance of “Blazing Saddles” is that you can watch it dozens of times, that you can laugh again and again at the sex jokes, at the sublime silliness, and even at the jokes about racial stereotypes without pausing to think about the underlying premise long enough to call it by its malicious name. Hedley Lamarr’s initial scheme boils down to this: If you put a black person in a prominent municipal position, everyone in the town will leave. “Blazing Saddles” is the funniest movie ever made about “white flight,” which is probably why it continues to make so many people uncomfortable.

But once we decide that the comedy in “Blazing Saddles” is serious, does that mean we have to take everything in the movie seriously? How are we supposed to view the elaborate ending? How are we supposed to understand the fantastically intricate way that Brooks pulled back the camera and broke the frame?

First, we have to remember the context. “Blazing Saddles” was released in 1974, during the heyday of American postmodernism. Thomas Pynchon only just won the National Book Award for “Gravity’s Rainbow.” John Barth’s “Chimera” was another recent winner. If we think about the ending within that context, it looks like a normal postmodern setup.

  1. With the town of Rock Ridge about to come under assault, the residents work all night to build a replica of Rock Ridge. The plan is to get the invaders to attack the simulation of Rock Ridge rather than the original. [Postmodernism level: High]

  2. The plan works! The enemy charges into town and begins to destroy the fake buildings and dummies. The Rock Ridgers fire on the invaders, set off dynamite, and charge in to finish them off. We watch the melee from just overhead. The music starts to swell and it’s clear that the Rock Ridgers are going to win and save their town. [Postmodernism level: Low]

  3. But then the camera zooms out. Things are wrong: instead of the imitation Rock Ridge, we see that we’re in the “real” Rock Ridge. Then it pulls back some more and we can see trailers on the edge of the screen. There are other, non-Western buildings tightly packed together. The camera pans left, and we see several enormous soundstages. [Postmodernism level: Building]

  4. Suddenly we’re in a soundstage and we’re in the middle of a Busby Berkeley-style musical. Men in tuxedos, top hats, and canes practice an absurd song-and-dance routine. The director corrects them. Then, as they resume practicing, the battle in Rock Ridge crashes through the sound stage. There’s a Western battle taking place on the set. The men in tuxedos are pushed around and start fighting. The director has had enough and he orders everyone to cut it out. One of the main villains of “Blazing Saddles” approaches, faces the director and say, “Piss on you, I’m working for Mel Brooks!” and punches the director in the stomach. [PoMo Level: PLAID]

The ending only becomes more antic and more intricate. Hedley Lamarr leaves the soundstage and goes to the Chinese Theater to watch the premiere of “Blazing Saddles.” He watches the good guys coming for him and it causes him to try to flee. Watching the movie is part of watching the movie. (It’s a joke Brooks loved so much that he used it again in “Spaceballs.”) We go back and forth from the movie to the set to the movie. Some characters act like actors playing characters. Some characters never drop the act. Is this comic or is it only silly? Is this postmodern or a joke on postmodernism?

We can’t answer the question because Brooks can’t answer the question. The ending of “Blazing Saddles” is a grand-though-hilarious failure because we’re never sure where the set-up ends and the joke begins. Parody had become inseparable from the thing itself.

Perhaps what Brooks was saying with the end of “Blazing Saddles” is that culture had become too anarchic to parody. There were no rules that artists had to follow. We would accept it all as serious art and Brooks approved. The end of “Blazing Saddles” calls back to the end of the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup.” In that surreal, anarchic ending, during Freedonia’s war against the Sylvanians, Groucho’s uniform constantly changes. One minute he’s in revolutionary war garb and everyone else is dressed like World War I soldiers; the next, Groucho is wearing a civil war infantry hat, then a confederate cavalry uniform. It’s a beautifully nonsensical statement of pacifism: war never ends, we only change costumes.

The movie reminds us that historical change is an illusion. We’re still genocidal, still racist. But perhaps we can use humor to get us to think differently. The end of “Blazing Saddles” isn’t an uncanny moment when Brooks’s parody echoes “serious” culture. The end of “Blazing Saddles” is a statement about how serious comedy has always been. It’s a reminder that much of what we sometimes call aesthetic experimentation came from screen comedies, from absurdist novels and films, from the need to push the comic envelope, to find new jokes. The ends is a proclamation about comedy and about postmodernism: Now we are all Marx Brothers.

Watch a preview for ‘Mel Brooks: Make a Noise’:

Watch Mel Brooks: Make a Noise - Preview on PBS. See more from American Experience.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Mel Brooks, Film, Eitan Kensky, Comedy, Blazing Saddles

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight":
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here:
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.