As is no news to many of you, Spike Lee has been outspoken since Christmas week about boycotting Quentin Tarantino’s revenge western “Django Unchained”; as a result, the writer/director sparked a Twitter firestorm with followers taking various stances and raising many questions. One query of which has been dozens of @-replies from followers, all curious of Spike’s opinion on Mel Brooks’s 1974 western slapstick “Blazing Saddles.”
I can’t really speak to Spike’s motivation for not answering these @-replies, but comparing “Django Unchained” to “Blazing Saddles” is, at best, a really cheap comparison. The two movies are too different to compare directly. It’s sort of the same thing that leads people to relate “Amistad” and “Beloved” to “Django Unchained.” They share a few surface similarities, but as soon as you step into the waters, they’re entirely different animals.
The short version is that “Blazing Saddles” is a comedy (or satire, or whatever — let’s go with comedy because it’s easier) set in the late 1800s and “Django Unchained” is a western set in the Antebellum South. “Django Unchained” has funny moments, and a lot of them, but the way it uses humor couldn’t be more different from how “Blazing Saddles” does.
“Saddles” wants you to laugh until you cry. Brooks layers in pointed jokes like the black sheriff, goofy stuff like anachronistic gags, and goofy names because he wants to make you laugh until you cry. It has a point — most good comedy does, I think — but it isn’t controversial in the same way that “Django” is. It tackles sensitive subjects, but not to the extremes “Django” does.
The sticking point with “Django” is that it’s about slavery, something we tend to tiptoe around, and it’s an action movie. More than anything else, “Django Unchained” is about a dude trying to get his wife back, even if he has to kill people in the process. It’s set in 1858 and 1859, so they couldn’t avoid slavery or excise it from the narrative without being dishonest. So Tarantino made the decision to tackle it head-on, to make slavery and its issues text instead of subtext, and that’s where the sticking point is. Considering how sensitive slavery is, an action movie set in that time period runs the risk of disrespecting, or maybe not paying enough fealty, to the very real misery that slavery caused.
Now, “Django Unchained” is funny. It’s really funny. But where Brooks was trying to make you laugh until you cried, Tarantino is trying to make you laugh to keep you from crying. He’s dealing with one of the most painful periods in American history, and having to confront the reality of that pain when you’re just trying to have a good time at the movies is tough. If he tilts too far in one direction, he’s disrespecting the subject by not treating it seriously enough. If he tilts it too far in the other, he makes a movie that feels more like a lecture than anything else (most slavery movies are the latter, here).
So he walks down the middle. The violence against the black characters in “Django Unchained” is realistic, whether that means rooted in history (the chains, the masks, the whips) or treated realistically if they’re fake (the mandingo fights, which are uncomfortably brutal and not like the fistfights we see in flicks usually). The white guys get geysers of blood and and so on.
But the thing is, realistic depictions of pain suck. It’s a huge bummer, to understate things, and you run the risk of losing the audience that came to see dudes get shot and damsels de-distressed. So Tarantino layers in jokes that we can appreciate from our 2013 perch, but also jokes that work just because they’re good jokes. We laugh at the reaction to Django on a horse because, guys, really, people were so backward. We laugh at the regulators arguing over their Clan-style masks because it makes what those guys eventually turned into — church-burners, child killers and terrorists — look like buffoons. It’s an agreeable idea to us, and executed in fantastic way.
That’s the reason why comparing “Django Unchained” to “Blazing Saddles” doesn’t work. Outside of black cowboys, black dudes on horses, and laughter, they don’t share too much at all. “Django” is funny because the humor is needed to keep you pushing past the pain. “Blazing Saddles” is funny because it’s a comedy.