So I watched Blazing Saddles last night on AMC. For those unfamiliar, the campy 1974 Mel Brooks classic is about bible-thumping rural white racists the late 19th century American West who don't cotton too well to having a black sherriff. I've watched this movie repeatedly over the years; when I was in primary school I laughed at the Looney Tunes-style sight gags and fart jokes. When I was in my teens and very early 20s I was still laughing at the fart jokes, but also chuckled at some of the deeper humor (like the Hedley Lamarr character erotically molesting a statue of Lady Justice while conceiving of ways to evict the citizens of Rock Ridge)*, and appreciated a movie that broke taboos and spewed racial and ethnic epithets freely, not because I enjoyed the epithets, but that there was freedom to do so. With the spread of non-premium movie channels to broadcast TV and cable in my late 20s and 30s, I still enjoyed the movie but was annoyed at the PC police (who came about in the early 90s) bleeping out language thought to cause offense. This for a movie where the rough language was key the entire point of the film, and muting the casual bigotry on display blunted its effect. Paradoxically, the PC wet blanket reduced a movie made at the height of the Blaxploitation era (and its films which featured nearly all-black casts and made generous use of anti-white slurs) to a tepid shell of itself, still funny and potent in a way, but overall lacking in punch and flavor, artificial and tinny to the palate. Kinda like diet soda.
It's been years since I've seen the movie, but when I saw it last night, I now view it through new eyes. Yes the slapstick humor is funny, and I'm old enough to remember what Looney Tunes were, whereas younger viewers may not. The difference is, this time around, the pendulum of racial bigotry has swung fully in the other direction, and now a movie that holds up prejudiced 19th century white country folk--no word, of course, about prejudiced Northern white urban left-wing sophisticates of the same era--for ridicule using late 20th century morality, must now in the early 21st century be viewed in the cultural context of Spike Lee's "mutherfucking hipsters" (apparently that's crypto for "honkey" or "cracka") and "visual daggers" comments, Oprah's "old white people have to die for racism to end" quip, Jamie Foxx's "I get to kill white people, how cool is that?" joke, in reference to the uber-violent racial revenge movie Django Unchained in which he starred, and Jay-Z's "whites are wicked and weak" "5 Percent" Nation of Islam bling worn courtside at a basketball game with a light-skinned Beyonce Knowles. Indeed, the movie appears a bit dated in its banging on about the bigotries of frontier whites from 140 years ago, even if it was meant as a shot against vestigial Archie-Bunker-style white prejudice in the 70s, when even other blacks today today agree it is black racism that appears to be the problem. One wonders if the movie perpetuates anti-white stereotypes, in the way that some thought the Blaxploitation films of the same era did viz blacks, and if so, why is it still on the air? Furthermore, the 1964 civil rights act, with its racial set-asides and reversed Jim Crow were just getting underway in 1974; forty years later, it seems everyone but whites have race-based preferences pulling for them, and a half-black man was elected not once, but twice, to the Presidency in no small part due to exceptionally un-colorblind votes of blacks. In this context, a movie about white oppression of blacks, while possibly historical, has little application to the modern day.
The Whig view of history sees progress as linear, that the prejudices, bigotries, and mistakes of the past gradually improve so that we'll eventually arrive at some utopian future. I'm afraid that's incorrect--the reality is that bigotry and hate just transfer to new owners, who in their merry lack of self-awareness perceive their own prejudices as correct, right, or just.
* This joke goes even deeper once one realizes that Lady Justice is a throwback to pre-Christian pagan Europe, where Lady Justice combines the Roman and Greek goddesses of luck, vengeance, and fate.