The movie “Blazing Saddles” debuted when I was a junior in high school, and the only thing I remember from that time is everyone talking about the campfire scene after all the cowboys had eaten beans.
Of course, this satirical spaghetti-Western film is so, so, so much more. According to Hollywood lore, it was one of the few movies of the 1970s to touch on racism. Sheriff Bart is Black and the people of Rock Ridge are aghast when the governor sends him to work in their town.
For years I’ve watched “Blazing Saddles” whenever I find it on TV. Every time I laugh at the one-liners — many racist and sexist — and I think, “There’s no way you could make this movie today.”
Years later, director Mel Brooks addressed that very issue in an interview. “I could barely make it then!” he said.
Brooks wrote the script with Black comedian Richard Pryor, who insisted on the use of the N-word. All these years later, viewers are now warned about the language.
Culture wars, anyone? Cancel culture? Are we too sensitive or are we righting past wrongs?
I go back and forth on the issue.
Sometimes it’s just plain ignorance. I still remember the Rocky Mountain News editor who was horrified that I used the word “Oriental” in a story to describe a slain woman. “Lynn!” she said. “The word is Asian.”
Other times, it’s an attempt by someone to prove they’re not politically correct. A couple of years ago, I said, “Happy holidays!” to someone. “I’m not a liberal,” the caller snapped. “I say Merry Christmas.”
The latest example of cancel culture, of course, involves Dr. Seuss.
“Did you hear they’re banning Dr. Seuss books because some people think the books are racist?” my brother-in-law asked.
“That’s terrible,” I responded. “This political correctness has got to stop.”
Then I found out it wasn’t true.
Dr. Seuss Enterprises chose to no longer publish six books that included caricatures of people of African, Asian and Arab descent. I haven’t read one of Theodor Geisel's books in decades but I don’t recall ever looking at them and thinking, “Are you kidding?” But times change and I cringed when I recently saw the images critics referred to.
Geisel’s stepdaughter, Lark Grey Dimond-Cates, told the New York Post there “‘wasn’t a racist bone in that man’s body,’ but also said suspending publication of the six titles was ‘a wise decision.’” The Guardian reported, “The controversy left many perplexed, since the decision was made by Dr. Seuss Enterprises and not as a result of public pressure that has preceded other such decisions.”
Enter Fox News.
As clever columnist Mike Littwin of The Colorado Sun wrote: “Dr. Seuss was not canceled in a box. He was not canceled with a fox. Thing One and Thing Two: Whatever you might hear on FoxNews, Seuss wasn’t canceled with gall. His publisher withdrew six books with racist imagery, that’s all.”
My friend Deb Goeken once owned early editions of the Nancy Drew books, which included racial stereotypes. Over the years the language changed when the publishers republished editions about the young detective.
Cancel culture has also hit the food world. Long beloved and familiar brand names are gone or are going. That includes Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Buttersworth, Eskimo Pie and Uncle Ben’s.
Many of the announcements regarding new names and new packaging for these products were made in the wake of riots following the death of George Floyd, a Black man. His death in May 2020 at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement.
"The Mrs. Butterworth's brand, including its syrup packaging, is intended to evoke the images of a loving grandmother," Conagra said in a statement at the time. "We stand in solidarity with our Black and Brown communities and we can see that our packaging may be interpreted in a way that is wholly inconsistent with our values."
I never thought of those brand images as being racist, but when I googled “Who is Aunt Jemima?” the section “People Also Search For” popped up. It featured a photo of actor LeVar Burton with an iron collar around his neck. “Kunta Kinte” reads the tagline. Kunta Kinte, who was kidnapped from Africa and sold into slavery, is the main character in the book “Roots.” I was in shock.
How could that happen if Aunt Jemima has nothing to do with slavery?
A conservative recently posted this on Facebook: “So, if the Redskins can’t be red, and Aunt Jemima can’t be on the syrup, what do we call the White House (for the next four years)?”
I read it to my brother-in-law, who pointed out that cosmetic companies also haven’t been immune to the Black Lives Movement. I looked it up.
News reports show Johnson & Johnson will no longer sell two skin-lightening lotions. L'Oreal is removing the words "white," "fair" and "light" from its skin products. Nivea's parent company is removing "whitening" and "fair" from products and marketing. Unilever is renaming it's popular Fair & Lovely cream to Glow & Lovely.
Let’s get back to “Blazing Saddles.” Pryor was to play the sheriff but the studio refused to insure him, so Pryor recruited actor Cleavon Little.
Brooks thought there was too much of the N-word, but Pryor disagreed.
“Richard said, ‘No, we are writing a story of racial prejudice. That’s the word, the only word. It’s profound, it’s real, and the more we use it from the rednecks, the more the victory of the black sheriff will resonate,’” Brooks recalled, in an interview.
After a sneak preview of the film, the studio chairman ordered Brooks to eliminate, among other things, all uses of the N-word and flatulence sound effects. Brooks ignored him and “Blazing Saddles” went on to become the top grossing movie of 1974.
The film features an all-star cast, including Brooks, Harvey Korman, Gene Wilder and the amazing Madeline Kahn. She plays Lili Von Shtupp, the dance hall singer who lisps through the film and lusts after the sheriff. At one point she sings, "Hewe I stand, the goddess of desire. Set men on fire. I have this powah. Morning, noon, and night is dwink and dancing Some quick womancing. And then a showah.”
Shtupp, by the way, is one of Brooks’ contributions to the film. Brooks is Jewish and schtupp is Yiddish for doing the deed. Mike Littwin turned me on to that delicious factoid.
“Blazing Saddles” fans went slightly berserk last year when what is called a “trigger warning” was displayed on the movie, warning of racist comments and such.
New York Post columnist Kyle Smith had a field day.
“Ridiculous, unnecessary trigger warnings are getting plastered all over everything. Realtors are afraid to use the term ‘master bedroom.’ But HBO Max seems to think we all live in kindergarten. What kind of melonhead doesn’t realize the purpose of the slurs in Blazing Saddles is to make the racists look bad?” he asked.
In this case, the culture wars have gone overboard.
As Lili Von Shtupp would say, “It’s twue, it’s twue.”