HBO Max recently pulled ‘Gone with the Wind’ from its video library as an indirect response to protests about racism. It was later returned it with a disclaimer to provide context. This strikes a reasonable balance between the aesthetic importance of the work and the moral importance of presenting slavery honestly. The disclaimer also provides context for the film itself, such as how racism impacted the black actors. Perhaps because of the success of this approach, HBO Max has added a disclaimer to the classic comedy ‘Blazing Saddles’.
The comedy-western engages directly with racism and prominently features racist characters using racist language. But, as the disclaimer notes, the comedy is explicitly anti-racist. The racists are the villains. Racism is savaged with the finest comedy. As such, it might be wondered why the film requires a disclaimer—that the film is anti-racist should be evident. This, one might argue, is analogous to putting a disclaimer before ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ to make it clear that the famously anti-war film is not pro-war. But let us consider the matter of the disclaimer.
One concern about putting a disclaimer on a film like ‘Blazing Saddles’ is it could provide ammunition to those saying the “politically correct cancel culture of the left” is out of control. One imagines Ben Shapiro or his fellows raging that the left has gone crazy and is mandating disclaimers on ‘Blazing Saddles’. It would thus be used as “proof” that “the left” is wrong about criticisms of racism in aesthetic works. A possible response is that the right’s outrage engines can create outrage ex nihilo and thus a disclaimer will have no meaningful impact aside from providing a focus of the outrage. That said, the disclaimer might have some impact on those critical enough to check to see if the target of the outrage exists, yet not critical enough to be thorough critics of the outrage.
This might seem like a silly concern, but things like this disclaimer can strike “normies” as ridiculous and this can be exploited as part of the radicalization process. The gist of the strategy is that a seemingly absurd response from “the left” can be used to help build a gradual ramp leading into the pit without those walking it noticing they are descending until they are in the depths.
Another concern is the disclaimer might be taken as an insult. It seems to suggest viewers are too stupid to understand the obvious point of the movie—that racism is bad. As a counter, it is worth considering that people do get confused about comedy. A good example of this is the character of Stephen Colbert played by Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report. While Colbert is a liberal who mocks conservatives (and liberals) some conservative viewers believed that he was serious about being a conservative. They did understand he was doing comedy (the show was on Comedy Central) but did not get the point. While it is but anecdotal evidence, I can attest to the fact that some conservatives took this view—I know conservatives who thought this. Since we all enjoyed the show, I was careful to never spoil their fun with the truth—an approach I take to other aesthetic works that people are confused about. As such, it is possible that the movie might be seen as endorsing racism
As another example, the 1975 “Germans” episode of “Fawlty Towers” includes the use of the N-word by the character of the major. In the episode, the major corrects someone for using a racist slur by suggesting they use another racist slur. In 2013 the BBC edited the episode to take out the word, which created a negative reaction in some quarters. Recently the BBC pulled the episode from streaming.
John Cleese, who played the main character on the show, addressed the matter by asserting that the racism of the major was presented in a negative light—that the point of the line was to criticize (with comedy) rather than commit a racist act. According to Cleese, “You see, what people don’t understand, there’s two ways of criticizing people. One is a direct criticism. And the other is to present their views as they would present them, but to make sure that everyone realizes that the person presenting those rules is a fool. And literal-minded people, who are the curse of the planet, can’t understand that. They think if you say something, you must mean it literally.” The decision makers seem to have come to agree with Cleese. The episode was restored for streaming, but some streaming services included a disclaimer or warning.
While these are only two examples, they do indicate that people can be mistaken about the intent of comedy—and, as the “Fawlty Towers” example shows, people can be confused specifically about the intent of the use of racism in comedy. As such, the use of disclaimers even for comedies critical of racism can be justified. The explanation provided can help people understand the intention of the work and realize that the racism in the comedy is not intended to be racist, but to be critical of racism. As such, the use of disclaimers seems reasonable as a means of preventing such confusion. This benefit must be balanced against the possible harm of making disclaimers. It can be argued that a reaction from “the left” about a work they mistake as racist would provide even better fodder for the right-wing outrage engines than the disclaimer. If the argument is a good one, then this would serve to justify the use of disclaimers.
As a final point, it is certainly sensible to inform potential viewers about content that they might find problematic—but it might suffice to add a text warning at the start (“contains comedy critical of racism that references racism”) rather than a disclaimer.