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Trading Places

Perhaps my most favorite Eddie Murphy movie was the 1983 smash hit Trading Places with Dan Aykroyd. Everybody must’ve seen this movie at least a dozen times by now. It’s been twenty five years since its release. Mr. Murphy plays Billy Ray Valentine and Mr. Aykroyd plays Louis Winthorpe III. Mr. Valentine is a down on his luck, street hustling black man and Mr. Winthorpe is a successful manager director of Duke and Duke, a prestigious stockbrokerage firm on Wall Street.

The Duke brothers are Randolph and Mortimer, played in order by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche. The Duke brothers make a wager as to whether or not hereditary genes make a person successful or whether it was simply a matter of training and preparation. The two conspire to break Mr. Winthorpe while making Mr. Valentine a successful manager director of Duke and Duke. After Winthorpe makes a foolish scene at the firm’s Christmas Party, and after Valentine successfully transitions to a hardworking executive, the two Duke brothers meet in the executive men’s room to discuss their bet.

“Pay up, Mortimer. I’ve won the bet,” says Randolph with a smile of glee on his face.

“Here, one dollar,” says Mortimer as he handed the money over with an expression of disgust and disbelief.

“We took a perfectly useless psychopath like Valentine, and turned him into a successful executive. And during the same time, we turned an honest, hard-working man into a violently, deranged, would-be killer,” Randolph says while chuckling. It was as if he was talking about a game instead of two men’s lives.

He continued, “Now, what are we going to do about taking Winthorpe back and returning Valentine to the ghetto?”

“I don’t want Winthorpe back, after what he’s done,” said Mortimer as he took an opportunity to wash his hands and freshen up a bit.

Randolph turned to his brother with a look of concern. “You mean, keep Valentine on as managing director?”

Mortimer Duke stopped what he was doing and looked his brother straight in the eye. He said, “Do you really believe I would have a nigger run our family business, Randolph?”

“Of course not. Neither would I.”

Twenty five years ago nobody thought anything much about the scene. Everybody recognized the sentiment. From the very moment the Duke brothers knew Billy Ray Valentine existed we understood that these two men didn’t care much for black people. There was the scene when the Duke brothers gave their elderly African American service butler at their executive men’s club his Christmas bonus of five dollars. Even in 1983 five dollars that was an insult.

Mr. Valentine was working hard to make money for Duke and Duke. When the Christmas Party was in full swing, Billy Ray was busy at work making sure the payroll or the bonus checks were accurate and nothing was out of line. There were a couple of scenes where Mr. Valentine even made considerable profits for the Dukes by falling back on his experience with human nature and applying it to what was happening in the market. He was more successful than the Dukes could have imagined. When Mortimer tried to encourage Billy Ray to steal Billy Ray instead did the right thing. Now that he had a good job, a good home, and everything in the world, why in the world would he do anything to screw it up? There was no need to steal. And Billy Ray thought he was set until he overheard the conversation in the bathroom between Randolph and Mortimer.

When Mortimer called Billy Ray a nigger no one had to interpret what was meant. He wasn’t simply expressing some frustration with black people. Billy Ray did nothing wrong and neither did any other black person. What Mortimer was expressing was his natural state of thinking, his racial prejudice, despite his firsthand experience with Mr. Valentine. Louis was the one that screwed up the Christmas Party. Louis was the one failed to live up to Mortimer’s expectation that white people were superior and a white man of Louis’ character would never stoop to doing something irrational. But nevertheless it’s Billy Ray that’s the nigger.

Today, now that we have so many examples of high profile white people using the word nigger in reference to black people, we know its no big deal. Black people call each other nigger, or some variation of the word, all day long so it only stands to reason that white people use it as well. We know white people would use the word as an expression of friendship and camaraderie. No white person would ever use the word as an insult to black people.

Today, people will try to blow smoke up each other’s ass and say Mortimer was calling Billy Ray a nigger out of an expression of friendship. Just like the way black people do it with each other. People will say that the conversation meant nothing because it happened behind closed doors. And the fact that they’d come out from behind closed doors planning to put Billy Ray back in the ghetto means nothing because the plan was planned behind closed doors. In fact, now that I think about it. If somebody was to try and do that same scene in a movie today it would probably come off all flat and confusing because people wouldn’t know what Mortimer would have meant by referring to the black man as a nigger. It’s just too confusing. There is such a gray line here.

Monday, August 11, 2008 Posted by | African Americans, Black Community, Black Culture, Black Men, Black People, Life, Racism, Thoughts | 13 Comments