Let's move right on past the whole yellow peril angle of a villain like Ming the Merciless for a moment and focus on the real racist tragedy in Flash Gordon. There are no Lion Men from Ardentia in the film. Instead of the awesome Thun with the mane and the fangs, we get what amounts to a stereotypical African native type. And then, to add insult to injury, he gets killed by Ming after almost no screentime.
Let's not even mention the lizard men, who we see not only in Ming's jail but also Arboria's jail. Plus, one is killed onscreen, to be mourned alongside King Thun, and he doesn't even get any dialogue.
So then, there's Ming. In Astounding Wonder: Imagining Science and Science Fiction in Interwar America, Cheng (2012) argues that Asian villains in science fiction brought "the otherness of advanced and degenerate civilization... Degeneracy justified conquest--exploration's coincidental and expeditious by-product--as redemptive reclamation" (p. 171). Effectively, an alien world ruled by a degenerate (Asian) ruler was inherently in need of saving and worthy of the invasion by Flash, Dale and Zarkov. The various races of Mongo are unable to band together (or "team up" but they don't even know what that means) to fight off Ming's rule until their savior comes in the form of Flash Gordon.
(I don't think I'll bother with a Christ-Figure analysis. I think it's fairly obvious that Flash should score pretty high.)
Anyway, Cheng argues,
This sentiment found perhaps its fullest expression in the figure of Ming the Merciless. Among the most popular and well-remembered characters in mid-century comic strips, Ming combined the worst, but most effective, qualities of science fiction's update of the Oriental villain. (p.171)
John C. Wright (Sci Fi Wright) asks,
[W]hy does Ming look and sound vaguely oriental? Because things vaguely oriental have the air of the exotic about them: it is a shorthand comic book image to portray the idea of unexplored far places. A far planet is supposed to look exotic. It was exotic for the sake of exotic, not exotic for the sake of playing up white man's fear of the yellow man.
Except, this notion is exactly the sort of problem suggested by Said's Orientalism. The very idea of the "exotic" is the problem. A simpler way to present an alien is to make him less human--to be fair, Mongovians have been depicted at times as having grey or green skin. Backtrack a moment to Thun, presented in this film as very much humanoid but with dark brown skin, when he should be leonine.
Cheng continues: "The absolute ruler of Mongo, Ming was the planet's version of Fu Manchu's incorporation of evil." Wright, on the other hand, counters:
I can show you a picture of Ming dressed in a Roman outfit, complete with plume on a Hollywood version of a centurion's helmet, if you like. Why does Ming dress like a Mandarin some times and a Roman other times? Because it's neat.
For that matter, why is there a winged Viking from a flying city held aloft by atomic rays? Because Vikings are neat. Why is Robin Hood and his Merry Men in Lincoln Green on Mongo, namely Barin of Arboria? Because Robin Hood is neat...
Flash is a blonde, blue-eyed hero, but his actions are the very opposite of anything preaching race-supremacy. His whole purpose in the story is to get the various warlike races of Mongo to cooperate against their mutual foe, the imperial Ming. His is the very voice of exemplar of racial toleration: a walking ad for the melting pot.
As if the suggestion that it takes a white hero to unite the various "warlike" races isn't exactly preaching race supremacy. Call the other races of the world--be it Mongo or Earth--warlike or childlike, call them uncivilized or backward and the race supremacy comes not exclusively with our skin tone but our culture, our nation--we have their best interests in mind, so it is our job to save them from the likes of Ming the Merciless. It is the white man's burden to save them... And, how wrong is it that the only two factions that join the fight are also white? The men from Ardentia, whose ruler was just killed in front of them the day before--are they involved? No. Because, unlike the flying Vikings and the Robin Hood-looking Prince Barin, those black men are not "neat." Not in Hollywood circa 1980 anyway. This is supposed to be a nice wholesome science fiction adventure, not an exploitation film leftover from the 70s.
Wright asks, "Why is Thun the Lion-Man the sidekick?" He's referring to the comic and not the film, of course. "I am not sure where this fits in with the racist theory," he continues, "which contorts itself to pretend a loyal and brave supporting characters [sic] is an insult to the character thus portrayed..." Let us sidestep over to Star Wars for a moment, Chewbacca in the stead of Thun. Rosemarie Garland Thomson (1996), in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body, argues:
It matters little whether the audience recognizes specific racist overtones behind the representation of any individual alien species, because the general equation of the Star Wars movies in unmistakeable: difference equals danger. The white male Jedi, fighting to maintain his position of authority in a universe of freaks and evil others, is the top of the evolutionary ladder. The audience views an array of alien other at which to gawk and laugh, but the serious job of saving the universe lies with the "normal" white male humans. (p. 333)
First of all, the Ewoks may counter that a little, or they may be the exception the proves the rule; it is only when they actively worship C-3PO and then are threatened by his power (by way of Luke) that they befriend our heroes rather than cook and eat them (because isn't that cute). Chewbacca and Thun are just fine as long as they remain sidekicks. Wright would have us take their loyalty as something noble, nevermind their inferiority.
It is not a coincidence that Flash Gordon was made when it was made. The Cold War was still going strong, America was fighting the Soviet Union, and we were (or had been) fighting in the jungles of Southeast Asia, on the behalf of other races. Exotic races.
Despite all of this--the movie ended ten minutes ago, so I should wrap this up--Flash Gordon works. Still. I think that Wright makes good points about what is neat. The problem is not necessarily that Flash Gordon includes what is neat. The problem is why we choose to think the exotic is neat in the first place.
In his concluding paragraph, Wright asks, "if FLASH GORDON is a political tract in disguise, tell me what is NOT a political tract in disguise?" He expects no answer to be possible but the answer, really, is that every tract is political. "If FLASH GORDON is not pure escapism," he asks finally, "what is?"