“It occurs to me that the best way you hurt rich people is by turning them into poor people,” Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) says to Louis Winthorpe II (Dan Aykroyd). Trading Places goes one step further by making it clear that what he really means is this: the best way you hurt white people is by turning them into black people.
When Billy Ray, Louie, Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis) and Coleman (Denholm Elliott) board a train on New Year’s Eve in hopes of foiling the Duke brothers’ insider trading scam, they disguise themselves in variously ridiculous costumes. Billy Ray’s a grad student from Cameroon. Ophelia’s a busty, lederhosen-sporting Swede. Coleman’s a whisky-swigging priest.
And Louis Winthorpe II, the mild-mannered, the well-bred – how is he disguised? With Dan Aykroyd in black face.
If this shocks you, it’s meant to. But the silly antics on the train, with the gorilla suits and the funny accents, all exist to showcase this one specific, visual representation of what’s been taking place the entire film. Louie traded places with a black guy living on the streets in 1983, and learned firsthand what a crappy place that is to be.
Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer Duke (Don Ameche), multi-millionaire brothers, are excessively invested in the debate of nature versus nurture. We can see why they might be – after all, being born into such immoderate privilege raises the question of whether they would have earned their success under different circumstances, or whether their supposed accomplishments are due entirely to the blind luck of birth. These are men who complain about minimum wage as they pay trifling sums to their hard-working employees. They want to feel justified in their prosperity.
So how to determine if genetics or environment is the more influential factor in success? By treating human beings like pawns, of course! Even Winthorpe, with his butler and ascots, is poor by Duke Brothers standards. But that’s nothing compared to wise-cracking street hustler Billy Ray Valentine. This guy’s for real poor. The kind of poor where he has to avoid cops who might decide to arrest him just for looking at them funny. The kind of poor where he pretends to be a blind, legless Vietnam vet so he can raise enough money to eat.
Randolph and Mortimer wager “the usual amount” and stage an elaborate ruse to determine a very simple premise: if they pluck this black pauper off the street and give him all the advantages of a prince of commerce, will he give up his life of crime and live as a respectable (white) citizen? And if they take a wealthy, white, well-educated commodities broker (with a fiancée named Penelope Witherspoon, no less) and strip him of his connections, his credit cards, his home, his butler and his job, will he resort to criminal (black) activities? Louie is the guy, after all, who wanted to prosecute Valentine to the full letter of the law for robbing him, when in fact Valentine was only trying to return his briefcase. “People like this are a menace to decent society,” Winthorpe sniffs. Let’s see how you like it when you’re the menace, Louie.
Of course, the very foundation of the Dukes’ wager is flawed. Valentine can never have the advantages of Winthorpe. On the most basic level, he’s black in the ‘80s. If he were a Harvard-educated millionaire, he’d still suffer prejudice at every turn. When Randolph attempts to prove that Valentine’s problems are purely the result of a poor environment, saying “There’s nothing wrong with him. I can prove it,” Mortimer replies, “Of course there’s something wrong with him. He’s a negro! Probably been stealing since he could crawl.” Racism is a very real obstacle to Valentine’s success.
But Valentine’s situation is even more damning than the circumstances of his race. He doesn’t have Winthorpe’s education or good breeding. His only connections in the shark eat shark world of Wall Street are the two conniving old bastards who conned him in the first place. This is a world beautifully summed up by the sign outside the Heritage Club where the Duke Brothers frame Winthorpe: “Heritage Club 1776. With Liberty And Justice For All. Members Only.”
There is no justice for all in this world. No matter what the Dukes take from Winthorpe and give to Valentine, this is not a level playing field. If, with Winthorpe’s home and butler and car and job, Valentine had failed, it wouldn’t be because of genetic deficiency. It would be because the man’s thrown out of his element into a critically demanding environment with no real assistance or support.
Fortunately, it doesn’t come to that, as Valentine’s street smarts serve him very well in the world of commodities brokering. They also serve him well when he’s wisely suspicious of the money clip full of hundreds Mortimer so unsubtly leaves on the floor for Valentine to steal. This guy’s too sharp for the diabolical old codgers, and he plays it safe on his way to the top. As the Dukes explain pork belly commodities to Valentine in the most patronizing terms (“which you might find in a bacon and lettuce and tomato sandwich!”), Eddie Murphy breaks the fourth wall for the first and only time in Trading Places. He gives us a brief, derisive glance, like “Can you believe these guys?” I can’t, dude.
So where does that leave poor, beleaguered Winthorpe? Eating smoked salmon through a dirty Santa beard on a subway. The thing is, the playing field isn’t level for him, either. He doesn’t have any street smarts. He has no experience with hustling. He’s never had to con a buck out of a passerby or even hail his own taxi. Valentine spends the night in jail and keeps himself mostly out of trouble through sheer bravado. Winthorpe spends the night in jail and nearly dies. He’s suffering all of the indignities and dangers that come from being a black man living on the street, but without any of the toughness. Winthorpe wouldn’t have lasted two days if he hadn’t had the good fortune of running into that hooker with a heart of gold – aptly named Ophelia, and when she tells him “This isn’t Shakespeare, Louie,” I have to laugh, because how totally Shakespeare is this rags-to-riches, riches-to-rags operetta?
So through Valentine’s street smarts and Winthorpe’s streets incompetence, Randolph wins the bet. For what amount do they turn Winthorpe’s and Valentine’s entire existences upside down? One measly dollar. It’s on this point that Trading Places ties in thematically with Drafthouse Films’ recent acquisition Cheap Thrills. In a very basic way, both films are about rich people screwing over those with less money and power for no better reason than sheer boredom. We’re nothing more than a gamble to these guys. When the Gods and Satans of Wall Street feel like making a wager, we’re the luckless Jobs stuck with the consequences.
If all of this feels like an issue of classism instead of racism (and one can argue that they’re often the same thing), Trading Places makes its point overt in the final act. After Randolph – whom we’ve believed the entire time to be rooting for Valentine to overcome the circumstances of his birth and race - wins the bet, Mortimer rages, “Do you really believe I would let a nigger run our family business?” And Randolph says, “Of course not. I wouldn’t either.” It’s back to the streets for ol’ Billy Ray.
Valentine never had a shot in hell with these two. It doesn’t matter how smart he is, how apt. It doesn’t matter that he proved himself worthy in every aspect of the wager. He’s black. He belongs in the street, and that’s where Randolph and Mortimer are going to return him. And Winthorpe, with his inability to surmount the conditions of poverty with grace, still belongs back behind the desk in a well-tailored suit. The Dukes have had their fun, and now it’s time to return everyone to the stations to which they were born, because living outside of your caste, of your race, is unthinkable.
Trading Places is a goofy movie that makes a clear, crucial plea: by 1983, it was well past time to let go of racial bias. It was well past time to level the playing fields between races and classes. Trading Places, for all of its broad comedy and wacky costumes, is nothing so much as a morality play. You’re wrong, Ophelia. Trading Places is Shakespeare. Shakespeare as interpreted by John Landis…and the guys who wrote Space Jam.
Originally published in the Alamo Drafthouse Summer of '83 guide. For tickets to Trading Places and any other Summer of '83 screenings, go here.