The Critic site is new to me, but appears to be a kind of Quillette-like UK website that fosters free speech, even when it’s not ideologically au courant. At any rate, this article appeared on the site recounting how once again HBO has tried to sanitize a “problematic” movie by giving it an ideologically palatable introduction—one that cannot be skipped. This time the movie is Mel Brooks’s 1974 classic “Blazing Saddles“. I saw that movie once decades ago, but can remember little about it except for the post-beans farting scene around the campfire. Apparently the movie has become a classic, though. As the article reports:
If you have not seen Blazing Saddles – and if you are under the age of forty there is an excellent chance some prudish authority figure sanitised it out of your cosseted millennial existence – it stands as one of the greatest, and the certainly the funniest, anti-racist films of all time. Based on a story by Andrew Bergman, Brooks conceived it as a scathing send-up of racism and the hypocrisy that still enabled it after the great civil rights victories of the 1960s. Brooks’s idiom was a parody of the classic Western, by then an exhausted genre that had, among other flaws, become inanely predictable and was much criticised for leaving out minorities. A landmark of American film, Blazing Saddles was selected in 2006 for inclusion in the US National Film Registry, which recognises “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films” worthy of preservation.
It also has an 88% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Click on the screenshot to read about the need for explaining. Mel Brooks isn’t exactly “cancelled” here; his movie is merely “explained”.
The “explainer” this time is the same professor who explained the racism in HBO’s reissue of “Gone with the Wind”, University of Chicago Cinema and Media studies professor Jacqueline Stewart. The problematic issue is, of course, that the movie, though anti-racist in theme (author Paul du Quenoy explains this clearly in his article), uses the n-word—17 times. And the anti-racist theme doesn’t matter, as the portrayal of racism itself demands that someone walk onstage at the outset and put the movie “in context”.
According to the report, this is how Dr. Stewart handles that:
[“Blazing Saddles”] arrived with a similarly patronising disclaimer already installed. In a three-minute introduction that apparently cannot be skipped over, Stewart is there again, this time to inform viewers that “racist language and attitudes pervade the film”, while instructing them that “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”.
du Quenoy explains that the film is problematic in many ways beyond the use of the n-word, as it also stereotypes Mexicans, Jews, Chinese, the Irish, and, in fact, almost every nationality on the planet. Mel Brooks appear in “full Indian dress,” and the movie finds humor in “drug abuse, capital punishment, physical and mental disabilities, cruelty to animals, and farting.” But these days, the major issue is race:
HBO clearly cares above all about the racial issue, which in the current moment is the most visible and reliable lever to establish media mechanisms for thought control, and to condition mass acceptance of diminished rights of free speech and expression. There are hopeful signs that it will not succeed. In her bland moralising tone, Stewart sounds like a Soviet bureaucrat of the late 1980s cataloguing the ideological demerits of some tentatively allowed item of Western culture to a jaded young audience ready to embrace it as enthusiastically as my students did when I covertly screened Blazing Saddles for them after Gene Wilder’s death in 2016.
I’ve tried to find Stewart’s introduction online as either a transcript or a video, but I can’t (perhaps readers can help). And, you know, I wouldn’t mind at all if the movie was preceded by a brief printed “trigger warning” explaining that the n-word is used and there are stereotypes that some people might find offensive. But a three-minute explanation of why the movie is problematic these days? No thank you! I don’t need to be told how to think about a movie.
Seriously, folks, I can watch the anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi movies “Der Ewige Jude” (“The Eternal Jew”) and “Triumph des Willens” (“Triumph of the Will”) without any “explanation”, and they’re both online for free (go to the links). Perhaps a brief explanation could appear for, say, 30 seconds at the beginning, designed for kids or the naive, but we’re not supposed to be told how to think about the movies. That’s what discussion is for. Stewart’s introductions appear to make such discussion superfluous—or even invidious.
du Quenoy gets a bit heavy-handed when decrying cancel culture, but I think his objection to the obligatory and unskipp-able introduction is right on the money. I’d be curious about what readers think. Perhaps it depends on what Stewart says, but I can’t imagine approving of any three-minute explanation meant to make a movie palatable to modern viewers. Imagine how many movies would require such a thing! I expect that will be coming when HBO gets their hands on some classic films. .