Virtues of the Goddess is a series on the eight virtues mentioned in the Charge of the Goddess and their relationship to the sabbats of the Wheel of the Year. This is Part 3: Honor.
Last Sunday, I was treated to a special screening of the classic Mel Brooks satirical comedy Blazing Saddles. The screening, which included a discussion with Brooks himself afterward, packed our gigantic Segerstrom Center with rabid fans of the comic genius writer-director-actor-singer-composer-producer. The crowd spanned across all ages. My dad, in his 70s, sat next to me. The lady next to him looked to be not quite of drinking age, and she enthusiastically sang along the opening theme song as she zealously cracked her imaginary whip at all the right moments of the introductory number.
(Fun Fact that I learned at the screening: The singer of the theme song, Frankie Laine, had no idea the movie was a comedy, so the heartfelt passion in his voice is genuine)
I was worried about how this showing would turn out. My father is an avid Mel Brooks fan, so I grew up watching this movie and knew almost every line, but I hadn’t seen it in probably 20 years. Released in 1974, Blazing Saddles is a Western spoof that intentionally and constantly pushes racial conflict directly into your face. The N word is tossed around as casually as a softball on a lazy spring day. It’s not pretty.
Other racist epithets abound. The language is often shocking to today’s ear, but it was partly written by the legendary Richard Pryor. There is no limit on who gets insulted, but the central story is of Bart, played by the classically trained actor Cleavon Little. Bart is a black railroad worker who gets appointed by corrupt white politicians to the post of Sheriff of Rock Ridge, a town that sits on prized railroad land. Knowing that the racist locals will tear the lawman apart, they joyously sacrifice him to the white masses hoping to induce chaos and steal the land.
Could this play in our current political atmosphere? It wasn’t very long before I realized that yes, it could. The satire is plain – those who throw around epithets are portrayed as ignorant savages. The racists are the bad guys. They all are dishonorable. Gene Wilder’s Waco Kid character calmly explain exactly what they are: “morons.”
This is not one of the Blacksploitation movies that were popular in the 1970s. Bart is a fully fleshed out character, the least caricatured role in the film. Bart is always portrayed as honorable. He and the Waco Kid slowly plant the seeds of honor in the town of Rock Ridge, and those seeds bloom as Sheriff Bart begins to live up to the words film’s theme song:
“He conquered fear and he conquered hate,
He turned dark night into day!”
What makes Bart honorable? He does what is right. He lives up to his duty. It’s not popular, and he risks his own life to do it, but he seeks the right course of action despite odds that are overwhelmingly against him. He does the right thing, even for people who despise him. Little by little, he wins the town over by planting seeds of honor. Those seeds take root, and the citizens of Rock Ridge grow into their own form of honor. They grow to love Bart. They learn to honor Bart as a man who does his duty. They eventually trust him with the ultimate fight against the bad guys, and he inspires them to stand up and defend their homes with honor.
Here at the Spring Equinox, we often contemplate the seeds we are planting. What are we doing now that will blossom into a fruitful harvest in our lives come fall? This year is especially important. With seeds of anger and dishonor being cast far and wide across America, how are we contributing to a more just and honorable country? t’s a time of contrasts. We celebrate the returning of the light, yet we remember that we learn about ourselves in the darkness.
Blazing Saddles is a film that unabashedly points out the dark parts of America’s soul, helping us learn about ourselves (even if it does include a scene celebrating the art of flatulence). The movie takes racism head on and reduces it to absurdity. It presents a vision where acting with honor, despite the dangers to yourself, can germinate real change.
I only wish we had learned that lesson back in 1974. Still, as we rise out of the dark time, yet see so much darkness in the landscape ahead of us, may we plant our seeds of honor and do our part to “turn dark night into day.”