When parody crosses over into racism
By Ed Appleby, Illustrator
Humour is a funny thing. In order to get a laugh out of people we have to push them into an uncomfortable place, showing things that cause the brain to misfire and release that tension with a guffaw. Parody is a great way to do this, by both creating funny situations and emphasizing aspects of our own life and world that are flawed and ridiculous. However, parody has always flown close to insensitive humour about race, gender, and nationality. It’s an easy way to feel superior by laughing at the characteristics of others. So where is that line?
Adam Sandler crossed that line while filming The Ridiculous Six. Six Native American actors and a cultural adviser walked off the set, making claims that the movie insulted their women and elders. And looking at the evidence, I cannot argue with that. The scene involving Native women named Beaver Breath, Smoking Fox, and Never Wears Bra talking about using a dead squirrel for toilet paper is insulting to woman, First Nations, and anyone who actually has an idea of what comedy is. The excuse that no one expects highbrow comedy from Adam Sandler doesn’t stand; this isn’t Happy Gilmore getting his butt kicked by Bob Barker.
Netflix executives who are producing the film have defended it, claiming “it is a broad satire of western movies and the stereotypes they popularized, featuring a diverse cast that is not only part of—but in on—the joke.”
This statement is especially insulting to me as it tries to justify the film by placing it on the same level as Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974). Recognized as one of the top 10 funniest movies of all time by the American Film Institute, Blazing Saddles parodied the western movie and race relations by showing some of the most outright racist scenes I’ve ever seen. The thing is, even though the movie showed extreme racism, it was not racist. Bart (Cleavon Little) was shown to be a complex and intelligent man, and it’s the racism he experiences as he wins over the peoples’ hearts and minds that gives us that uncomfortable laugh.
Before I get accused of comparing African-American apples to First Nations oranges, there is a scene in Blazing Saddles where three Native Americans approach a young Bart. The two warriors are aboriginal and the chief is Mel Brooks made up to appear aboriginal. This is a subtle nod to the fact that Hollywood westerns made use of non-Native actors in Native rolls (*cough* Johnny Depp *cough*), made all the more obvious when Brooks started to speak in, not Apache, but Yiddish.
There is a place for stupid, lowbrow, and racist comedy. And we all have our guilty pleasures. But do not try to pass off lazy joke writing as satire or the true satirists will make fun of you.