The Western as Black Comedy
Melvin Van Peebles’ Blaxploitation-era masterpiece, Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadasssss Song (1971), by reworking the traditions of the American Western, critiques how African-Americans must live under the yolk of white racism. In the middle of the film, a biker gang traps Sweetback. In a bizarre sequence, he engages in a duel with the gang’s heroine. They fight using the traditions of sex performance that the film has established as Sweetback’s métier, but nonetheless, this is a kind of shoot-out more appropriately located at the OK Corral.
The film ends with one of the central motifs of the American Western, the escape from civilized authority into the wilderness. Like Shane before him, there is nothing left for Sweetback in populated America. In Sweetback’s case, the nation is dominated by racist police who chain him; his hands move in another’s control as the police beat up a black protester early in the film. After Sweetback beats to death those cops with their own handcuffs, he goes on the run for the rest of the film. In classic American Western fashion, he flees the city to the American Southwest. As the police dogs finally catch up to him, he re-baptizes himself in their blood, crossing the river of no return. The film ends with him wading into Mexico, facing the mountains, as close but as far away as those that beckon Shane. Van Peebles ends with a textual warning, that Sweetback will return to collect some dues.
How do we reconcile the comedy of Van Peebles’ first studio film, Watermelon Man (1970) with the horrors of Sweet Sweetback…? I turn to the middle ground between them by noticing that a commercial Hollywood film that would never been seen as a Blaxploitation piece in fact invokes these two generic traditions. Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1973) is a Blaxploitation film par excellence. It features a central African-American character, Bart (Cleavon Little), it is produced by Jewish filmmakers (Mel Brooks and Andrew Bergman) who had the good sense to hire the funniest comic of the 1970s, Richard Pryor as one of the screenwriters.
Like Watermelon Man, Blazing Saddles is rife with comic interventions into the racist nature of the American experience. When Bart and his friend Charlie, enslaved workers building the railroad sink in quicksand while testing the track, Taggart (Slim Pickins) and his foreman, Lyle (Burton Gilliam) throw down a rope. Taggart is relieved when they rescue the $400 handcart used by the men, but the African-American men themselves are of no concern. When Bart barely keeps his feet on the rail to drag Charlie and himself to safety, Taggart jokes, “Don’t just lay around getting a sun tan.” Like Sweetback, Bart has had enough: he responds to Taggart’s order that he put his shovel to good use by using it to whack Taggart on the back of his head.
Throughout the film, Bart plays the trickster to the conventions of the American Western. When he learns that Taggart’s boss, Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) is assembling an army of villains to destroy his town of Rock Ridge, Bart and his buddy, Jim (Gene Wilder) sneak into the line of applicants. Behind a rock, Jim distracts two Ku Klux Klan members by showing them his “prisoner,” Bart. Bart quips, “Hey, where are the white women at?” When the Klansmen take the bait, they beat them up and steal their robes. When they arrive at the front of the line to apply to Lamarr, they notice Bart’s hands beneath the white robes are black. He jokes in direct address to the camera, “And now, for my next impression, Jesse Owens.”
The postmodern comedy of Blazing Saddles offers a new turn of the screw for the genre play of Hollywood Renaissance cinema. Yet the film’s obsessions, with the traditions of the American Western, and its comic trickster approach, are aspects of Blaxploitation cinema at its finest. Count Basie and his orchestra at the beginning of Blazing Saddles are as out of place in the American West as Jeff the insurance salesman in Watermelon Man is holding a broom in the middle of the dump, set to the ironic tune, “Love, That’s America.” Both offer acoustic tricksterism—replete with the complexities of the history of music and race in America—at its most scathing pitch. To expand our focus on a wide swath of early 1970s films is to understand the changes in American film culture more fully, to seek out the “Blaxploitation” elements in Hollywood films more generally.