How does Trading Places survive the switch from then to now?

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Back in 2005 comic Sarah Silverman made the following joke:

If we can send a person to the moon, we can send someone with AIDS to the moon, and then someday we can send everybody with AIDS to the moon.

She also said:

The Holocaust would never have happened if black people lived in Germany in the 1930s and 40s … well, it wouldn’t have happened to Jews.

This kind of humour is designed to shock but it is also supposed to highlight and mock prejudice, not ridiculing the people it is talking about but those that hold these types of attitudes.

If I didn’t know better I’d think Trading Places was trying to do the same thing but that kind of extreme comedy was very much of its time (Silverman has a quite different schtick now and even Borat has reigned things in a little), and that time was not 1983.

Pretty early on watching Trading Places, a film that purports to be a Christmas movie but just happens to be set in December so has some seasonal trappings, you realise it has some heavily racist trappings too.

Eddie Murphy’s character is regularly referred to as a negro, and even though there is an argument that this wasn’t a derogatory term back then it is intended as such here. These isn’t the worst thing he is called either. Also, while the posters and the strap lines talk about a rich guy and a poor guy swapping positions, the film is demonstrably about a rich white guy and a poor black guy. Stereotypes fuel the plot. The movie does try to bring viewers in on the joke in a twice used conceit of having Murphy’s Billy Ray Valentine look directly at the camera; he is with the audience and wants them to be with him in a way Dan Ackroyd’s Louis Winthorpe isn’t. It is the bad guys that are being horribly discriminatory as well, so we are not meant to condone their behaviour. Then right near the end Winthorpe, who is certainly one of the heroes of the piece, is also shown as an ignorant racist and this is after he is supposed to have questioned his misguided ideas. It’s a problematic moment but then what happens on the train really pushes contemporary sensibilities, and I’m not even referring to the beastiality jokes.

So it’s the final coup; Valentine and Winthorpe have realised they are both victims of the septuagenarian Duke brothers petty, superior games and they are planning to turn the tables. To do this they need to get close to the Duke’s criminal agent Clarence Beeks so disguises are required. First we get Murphy himself doing a very poorly informed and offensive portrayal of an African. This is followed by equally cliched impressions of an Irish priest and a Swedish/Austrian girl, courtesy of Denholm Elliott and Jamie Lee Curtis, before Ackroyd turns up, I kid you not, in black face. I mean they have to be doing this on purpose don’t they? They have to be fully aware on the insensitivity don’t they? Well no, it was the eighties, they didn’t know and neither did we. I’m implicated; I first saw Trading Places thirty years ago and I didn’t have a problem with it back then either. I have grown up (I was clearly so so young), society has grown up too (largely), but the film is still considered a bit of a classic. Certainly I don’t see it getting pilloried like Ace Ventura, Temple of Doom or Dirty Harry for its less than enlightened characterisations. It’s showing in the Christmas season at my local cinema now.

To be fair even with all of this Trading Places seems fairly innocuous compared to a lot of other films where the humour has dated (says the white guy) but dated it is. If not often laugh out loud funny, it is carried by generally endearing performances and everyone that needs to gets a satisfactory comeuppance, even if the scenes with Deeks and the amorous ape that I briefly touched on earlier also seem more than a little distasteful now as well.

Nonetheless, every black person in the movie is in service or in prison at some point, including a young Giancarlo Esposito currently being seen in positions of leadership in Breaking Bad, Westworld, The Boys and The Mandalorian. It’s not Gone With the Wind but it is still part of a cinematic storm that had to be weathered by a lot of people.

In the end, the question of how far the season of forgiveness extends with this one is going to be up to individual viewers but there are certainly issues. Watch it but that’s the trade off.

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