Recalling Gene Wilder’s Jewfro and race relations in ‘Blazing Saddles’

Last year I joined some 3,000 people in Newark, New Jersey, for a big-screen showing of Mel Brooks’ 1974 Western parody “Blazing Saddles,” starring the late, great Gene Wilder, who died this week at 83. In the onstage interview that followed, Brooks, then 89, was beside himself in his delight at sharing his comedy with a real live audience.

There was only one awkward moment in a joyous and hilarious evening, and it came when Brooks asked if anyone in the audience actually lived in Newark. One person, in the balcony, said yes. Brooks couldn’t know it, but it was a reminder of the sad history of Newark and the white ethnic populations, including a vibrant Jewish community, that fled the city for the suburbs — an exodus that culminated with the violent riots of 1967.

Gene Wilder (right) in a scene with Cleavon Little from the 1974 comedy “Blazing Saddles” photo/jta-warner bros.

Brooks’ inadvertent reminder of the yawning divide between mostly black Newark and its mostly white suburbs was particularly poignant considering the themes of racial bigotry and reconciliation that he didn’t just sneak into “Blazing Saddles,” but are in fact its comic engine.

Co-written in part with the late, great comedian Richard Pryor, “Blazing Saddles” is about a lily-white town in the desolate West that is in the way of a railroad being built by the villainous Hedley Lamarr, played by Harvey Korman. To rile the people of Rock Ridge and make it easier for his henchmen to drive them away, Korman appoints a black railroad worker, played by a dashing Cleavon Little, as their new sheriff, inevitably named Black Bart. The townspeople are appalled, and much of the plot, such as it is, involves Little trying to win over the bigots and unite the town against Korman’s robber baron.

That’s where Wilder comes in. The orange-haired, blue-eyed master of the comedic pause and the slow burn, plays Jim, aka the Waco Kid, a washed-up gunslinger whom Little finds sleeping it off in the town jail.  Although never explicitly identified as Jewish, he clearly is.

“Are we awake?” Bart asks of the drunk cowboy hanging upside down from his bunk.

“We’re not sure. Are we … black?” Jim replies.

“Yes, we are,” Bart says.

“Then we’re awake,” Jim says, “but we’re very puzzled.”

The “we” there is telling, as is Wilder’s stating the obvious from the get-go. His character isn’t racist — he understands in an instant that black men do not become sheriffs in the mythical American West. From this brief encounter grows one of the cinema’s greatest on-screen friendships, as well as a brief reminder of an off-screen black-Jewish alliance that was already fading, if not dead, when the movie came out.

Jews and blacks had made common cause in the early years of the civil rights movement — out of mutual self-interest, it’s true, but also a sense of idealism represented by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s frequent invocations of the Old Testament and the Jewish kids who traveled south to agitate for black voters’ rights. Jews were overrepresented in the NAACP, and the big Jewish organizations often adopted the civil rights cause as their own.

By the late ’60s, however, identity politics, the rejection by black militants of “colonialist” Zionism, and riots that hollowed out Newark and dozens of other cities drove a wedge between blacks and Jews.

In an essay for NPR, Nadya Faulx once noted that the interracial relationship between Bart and Jim wasn’t unprecedented in film, but “it was one of the first in which race wasn’t treated as an obstacle.” “Blazing Saddles” came after “The Defiant Ones,” in which Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are literally shackled together as a white and black (and Jewish and black) odd couple.

“Blazing Saddles” also foresaw a string of black-white buddy movies to come, include Wilder’s own collaborations with Pryor on “Stir Crazy” and other comedies, as well as “Beverly Hills Cop,” “Lethal Weapon” and “48 Hours.”

The black-Jewish alliance was never as solid as some survivors of the ’60s like to claim.  In that sense, “Blazing Saddles” is, perhaps, a movie about what could have been and what might still be: a better world in which Jews and African Americans win out over racism, xenophobia, ignorance and a rapacious tycoon through the power of friendship, cunning, some bloodless gun play — and the occasional fart joke.

Andrew Silow-Carroll

Andrew Silow-Carroll is JTA’s Editor in Chief. Previously he served as editor in chief and CEO of the New Jersey Jewish News and wrote an award-winning weekly column in the Times of Israel. He was also the managing editor of the Forward newspaper, editor of the Washington Jewish Week, senior editor of Moment magazine, and a reporter for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.