Movie: Trading Places (1983)

I recently saw a car with a window decal reading, “White privilege is a myth”.  My hackles went up immediately.  I am not aware of any advantages that have been available specifically to me because of my race, but I know that, in general, there are far more opportunities available in the United States if you’re white compared to if you’re not.

In 1983’s Trading Places, Dan Ackroyd plays a character who is the living embodiment of white privilege decades before that term entered the vernacular.  He is the top performer at a prestigious Wall Street firm.  I’m sure he is an intelligent and skillful investor; however, I doubt he would have been allowed to set foot in the door of the firm if he wasn’t white.

The two elderly brothers who own the firm are cruel bastards, and they decide to conduct an experiment to test the old “nature vs. nurture” debate.  Arguing whether criminals are born or made, they decide to ruin Ackroyd’s life to see if he turns to a life of crime.  At the same time, they grab a low-level con artist, played by Eddie Murphy, and give him a mansion, wealth and a Ackroyd’s old position.

The setup is interesting, and the movie does a lot with it.  As it traces the meteoric crash of Ackroyd, we see how helpless he becomes.  A prostitute played by Jamie Lee Curtis takes him under her wing.  It she hadn’t, he’d probably be dead within a week.  This isn’t the most believable development and, although she’s very funny in this, I had a lot of trouble believing she was a streetwalker, period.

Murphy has the lion’s share of the film and he is stellar in it.  I surprised myself when I realized I had not seen any of his movies from his prime era prior to seeing this.  Early on, he receives a condescending lecture on finance from the brothers who own the firm, and the expression he throws the camera is priceless.  It’s worthy of Cary Grant.

Lending credence to the “nuture” side of the debate, Murphy excels in the job, providing insights other traders would have never considered.  Alas, no matter how much money he earns for the firm, the Statler and Waldorf running the place intend to give him the boot as soon as their experiment is over.

This leads to a riotous third act, where Murphy and Ackroyd join forces to get justice.  The setup and execution is like a heist, though no money is actually stolen. 

Strangely, I found myself embarrassed by seeing Jamie Lee Curtis topless in a couple of scenes.  There are many actresses I respect and don’t find it odd seeing them naked, yet Curtis always feels so natural that it’s like she’s somebody you know personally.  It felt like seeing your next-door neighbor naked.

Trading Places is clever, fun and surprising.  For many reasons, it is a movie that couldn’t (more like shouldn’t) be made today without some major changes.  And yet it has some newfound relevance today, as our society becomes more comfortable with discussing white privilege. 

If you are in a position of power where you can decide whether or not to give somebody employment, you may want to examine your biases and question whether you are hiring the best person.  If you don’t, it could be your undoing.  Just ask the old bastards in this film.

Dir: John Landis

Starring Eddie Murphy, Dan Ackroyd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Denholm Elliott

Watched on blu-ray