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This Review Reveals Minor Details About the Plot.

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Trading Places (1983) on IMDb

Plot Overview

To the uplifting strains of the “Marriage of Figaro” by Mozart/Da Ponte—based on the novel by 18th-century French novelist Beau­mar­chais who wrote of the lower classes prevailing over the upper—the camera slowly pans central Philly's famous statuary, Liberty Bell, Salvation Army Santa, store­fronts, movie marquee (XXX live nude sex show), working folk, and bums. From inside some fancy digs, rising stock trader Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) is served in bed (“Your break­fast, sir”), gets dressed and is driven in his Mercedes to Duke & Duke where he makes a good call (“Pork bellies, I knew it!”) After­wards at the Heritage Club he schmoozes with appreciative Duke brothers Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche) who anticipate his upcoming marriage to their grand niece Penelope Wither­spoon (Kristin Holby).

As the Dukes soldier on with some protracted debate on “environment vs. breeding,” Louis (pronounced Loo-iss, not Loo-ee) collides at the exit with street hustler Billy Ray Valen­tine (Eddie Murphy.) The ensuing rhubarb gets the latter arrested. Randolph temporizes, “That man is a product of a poor environment. There's nothing wrong with him.” Mortimer, how­ever, contends, “Of course there's some­thing wrong with him … he's a Negro!”

The two brothers determine to settle the matter with a “scientific experiment” in which they will swap out the social contexts of these two unwitting characters, using money and influence to manipulate them and see what happens. Billy Ray confides to his newly acquired butler, “There's some strange shit going on here, Coleman.” Louis's new hooker helper (Jamie Lee Curtis) introduces her­self as “Ophelia (right, Hamlet's girlfriend).” And we end up with a strange plot twist worthy of Shakes­peare himself.


Statues of America's founding fathers, the name and founding date of the Heritage Club, 1776, the inscription on the building (“With liberty and justice for all”), yea, even their location (Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love) all hark back to a set of democratic ideals that are at odds with the Dukes (“keep Valentine on as managing director?” ¶“Do you really believe I would have a nigger run our family business?”) Philadelphia was founded by Quakers who were America's first abolitionists. This sets the whole plot as sharp irony. But it gets better (worse.) Part of the action moves to a New Year's Eve celebration aboard a moving train, whose celebrants are costumed, one of them dressed as a black gorilla whom the drunken baggage handlers put in with a shipment of gorillas headed back to Africa.

Owing to our modern pc term African-American it's easy for us to make a connection here of sending the slaves back, but it's not out of reach to a 1983 audience, either. The English ‘n’ word, then more in currency, comes from nègre French for ‘black’ as also is Negro Spanish for ‘black’ (and similar words in Italian and Portuguese.) They both derive from niger that's Latin for ‘black’. It's in the Bible, (Acts 13:1) “Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as … Simeon that was called Niger.” Researcher Bodie Hodge confirms that “As a general trend, Ham is the father of many peoples in Africa” (122). Dr. Ide adds, “Ham sired four sons: Cush (translates as ‘black’) … and Canaan the youngest” (62). These have their origins, (Gen. 6:10) “And Noah begat three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth.” These three sons of Noah fathered the whole human race alive today. From Shem came White Europeans (and others). Ham's descendants settled largely in Africa becoming the black races. Researcher Mark DeWayne Combs posits that, “Although Jasher specific­ally references the births of Japheth and Shem, there is no such reference to the birth of Ham. … that Ham may have been much younger than his brothers and that he may have had a different mother” (389). (See my review of “Project Almanac” for a fuller explanation.) Combs also observes, “Fathering a child, particularly a son, through a hand­maiden or servant girl would not have been an uncommon or forbidden practice in that time period” (165). Ham would have been the servant half brother to Shem and Japheth. In this movie Billy Ray is introduced while he's doing a scam based on a Vietnam service related disability, but the cops who roust him find he can't credibly name his unit or where he was stationed. That Ham's mother is not named in Jasher (of Joshua 10:13 & 2Sam. 1:18 mention) indicates she was of lower status than Shem & Japheth's mom who was named. Prof. Stampp remarks that “Apologists for slavery traced the history of servitude back to the dawn of civilization and showed that it had always existed in some form until their own day” (14).

After the Flood there was an incident, Gen. 9:20-22, where Noah got drunk on wine and was exposed in all his glory to his son Ham who brazenly viewed him so. Noah's other two sons, Shem and Japheth, covered him up, Gen. 9:23. Ham had violated him in some way, Gen. 9:24. Noah's curse puts Ham's youngest son Canaan specifically, and his other sons by implication, in a position of servitude, Gen. 9:25. Noah's other two sons Shem, Gen. 9:26, and Japheth, Gen. 9:27, were blessed by Noah. Writer Bodie Hodge (134) quotes “Bible Questions and Answers,” The Golden Age (July 24, 1929): p. 702.

Question: Is there anything in the Bible that reveals the origin of the Negro?

Answer: It is generally believed that the curse which Noah pronounced upon Canaan was the origin of the Black race. Certain it is that when Noah said, “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be to his brethren,” he pictured the future of the Colored race.

“Trading” contains the following exchange regarding a caged gorilla:
Stationmaster: “This animal is being routed through to New York. It's care and feeding instructions are on this bill of lading.”

Baggage Handler #2: “Okay, gotcha.”

Stationmaster: “Now, I doubt if you'll have any problems, but if you do, there's a tranquilizer gun in the first aid kit.”

Baggage Handler #1: “Oh, yeah?”

Stationmaster: [sniffs] “Say, have you guys been drinking?”

Baggage Handler #2: “Oh no, not us.”

Baggage Handler #1: “There's enough drunks on this train, already.”

A drunken revelry, a tranquilizing gun, a “King Kong” reveller who gets emasculated, this is enough to jar our memory to think of the biblical incident regarding Noah. Once there all we need do is apply the tutorial the Dukes give to Billy Ray on commodity trading. Randolph Duke: “We are 'commodities brokers', William. Now, what are commodities? Commodities are agricultural products ... like coffee that you had for breakfast ... wheat, which is used to make bread ... pork bellies, which is used to make bacon, which you might find in a 'bacon and lettuce and tomato' sandwich.” [continuing] “And then there are other commodities, like frozen orange juice ... and GOLD. Though, of course, gold doesn't grow on trees like oranges. … Now, some of our clients are speculating that the price of gold will rise in the future. And we have other clients who are speculating that the price of gold will fall. They place their orders with us, and we buy or sell their gold for them.” Commodities in “Trading Places” also include clothing (“He was wearing my Harvard tie”), alcohol (“Would you like a sip of whiskey?”), a pawned watch (“it's worth 50 bucks”), a “cheap vase” (“valued … for the insurance company at $50,000”), Christmas gifts, and a girl­friend's jewelry. And as prostitute Ophelia puts it, “food and rent aren't the only things around here that cost money.”

Now let us look for commodities in Noah's story. We've got basically the same ones: a human construction the ark (Gen. 6:14-16), minerals in the dried earth (Gen. 8:13), offerings (gifts) to the Lord (Gen. 8:20), agricultural products (Gen. 8:22), meat products (Gen. 9:3), alcohol (Gen. 9:20), shelter (Gen. 9:21), and clothing (Gen. 9:23). Noah's three sons (and their offspring) are going to trade (barter?) in these commodities. They will prosper according to Noah's blessing. One son (Ham) was betting on scarce threads while the other two (Shem & Japheth) bet on abundance of covering. In “Trading Places” a couple investors bet on abundance of frozen concentrated orange juice (F.C.O.J.) and a couple bet on a dearth of O.J. This movie sets us up to approve the modern winners and losers though they are not necessarily racially the same as the ones in the ancient Noah myth. But that's comedy for you.

If, however, one takes a more euhemeristic view of Noah's story, it could even lead to discussion as serious as in a Robert Reid novel: (142)

There would be a bottle or two on the table, and the talk always ran to crops in the field and Jews on the Chicago Board of Trade. And colored people who didn't even know the rudiments of proper behavior anymore. Infiltrated by the reds, you bet. J. Edgar Hoover said so himself. And weather, both the kind of weather that came from the sky, and the kind that seemed to be building up a storm in people's hearts. And they talked about church, too, because God still had a plan, even if folks had lately become blind to it.

Production Values

Trading Places” (1983) was directed by John Landis. It was written by Timothy Harris and Herschel Wein­grod. It stars Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche and Jamie Lee Curtis. Eddie Murphy really struts his stuff as the consum­mate black comedian, and Aykroyd does a swell job as well. Also notable in a break­through role for Jamie Lee Curtis is her playing a prostitute Ophelia with a heart of gold, and her body ain't so bad either. The movie ends upbeat with the song, “Get a Job” by the Silhouettes.

“Trading” is rated R for (partial) nudity and some language. The topless women may be excused in an experimental film needing to discreetly evoke an uncovered Noah. Actors Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche let loose a bunch of profanity near the end capping off the bad language unfortunately pervading the film. The (pre 9/11) scene in which one of the traders strolling below the Twin Towers remarks, “In this building, it's either kill or be killed” is mercifully cut from the TV version. The Philadelphia scenery is nicely realistic to my native PA eye. The editing is basic, nothing fancy, getting the job done, functional and undis­ting­uished.

Review Conclusion w/ Christian Recommendation

A woman in my film class saw this movie with a black audience when it first came out. She says they laughed in different places than did a White audience. It's really the actors who carry the comedy that can be appreciated on multiple levels and in multiple directions. Funny it is, hands down.

Movie Ratings

Action factor: Well done action flick. Suitability For Children: Not Suitable for Children of Any Age. Video Occasion: Fit For a Friday Evening. Suspense: A few suspenseful moments. Special effects: Average special effects. Overall product rating: Five stars out of five.

Works Cited

Scripture quoted from the King James Version. Pub. 1611, rev. 1769. Software.

Combs, Mark DeWayne. End the Beginning. USA: Splinter in the Mind's Eye Pub., 2014. Print.

Hodge, Bodie. Tower of Babel: The Cultural History of Our Ancestors. Green Forest, AR: New Leaf Pub., 2013. Print.

Ide, Arthur Frederick. Noah & the Ark: The Influence of Sex, Homo­phobia and Hetero­sexism in the Flood Story and its Writing. Las Colinas: Monument Press, 1992. Print.

Reid, Robert Sims. The Red Corvette. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 1992. Print.

Stampp, Kenneth M., Professor of American History at the University of California (Berkeley).
   The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. Vintage Books, 1955. Print.