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"I was poor and no one liked me." Why Trading Places is the Christmas movie to watch this year

Dec 22, 2014

Screenshot from Trading Places.
Credit screen grab from YouTube

There's a list of movies I sit down to watch nearly every December. Most of the movies are terrible. Any other time of year, I'd be ashamed to admit how much I enjoy such corny classics. That's what makes Christmastime special, for those of us who celebrate it. It's like a free pass to just think happy thoughts. It's a collective suspension of disbelief that lasts for the better part of a month. 

When I sit down to watch my favorite Christmas movies, one thing I'm definitely not expecting to get is a cutting commentary on race and class in America. But that's what you get with the 1983 comedy Trading Places

I'll spare you the brief plot synopsis, because if you don't already know about Trading Places, you might as well watch the trailer now. 

This is not a perfect movie. I wouldn't recommend watching it with the kids. Trading Places also wouldn't withstand a feminist critique. The best you can say on that front is that Jamie Lee Curtis is a great actor, and she did well with what the writers gave her. 

But Trading Places does have a lot more ambition than most Christmas movies. For one thing, it's one of the most sophisticated movies ever made about the financial markets. NPR's Planet Money devoted a show to it last year

And the movie's take on race is particularly relevant this Christmas season, with ongoing protests over how police treat black men in America. It's almost chilling, after what we've seen on YouTube and on TV over the past few months, to watch an unarmed, and innocent, Billy Ray Valentine (played by Eddie Murphy) smile as a screen full of pistols are pointed at his face. 

And the racism doesn't stop once Valentine fully trades places, and finds success as a commodity trader. 

Even after he's made the nefarious, and filthy rich Duke Brothers loads of money, and proven himself loyal, the brothers scoff at the idea of keeping Valentine on long-term.

"Do you really believe I would have a n***** run our family business, Randolph?" says one. 

"Of course not, neither would I," responds the other. 

Then there's the scene where Louis Winthrop III (played by Dan Akroyd) wakes up in his bed, after being thrown out and finding himself poor. He imagines the whole thing must have been a dream. 

"I had the most absurd nightmare," Winthrop tells his butler. "I was poor and no one liked me. I lost my job, I lost my house, Penelope hated me and it was all because of this terrible, awful Negro."

Winthrop and Valentine eventually team up to take down the Dukes with a commodities trading scheme that eventually led to real-world regulation (dubbed "The Eddie Murphy rule," natch). The path that brought Winthrop and Valentine together exposes some sinister social divisions - divisions that most Christmas movies avoid altogether. 

But by the end, we do get our happy ending. Joined by their mutual goal of defeating the Dukes, Winthrop and Valentine become buddies. They spent most of the movie divided by race and by class. Only a few scenes earlier, Winthrop had referred to Valentine as a "terrible, awful Negro." Now, they're best friends. The only thing separating them is crystal blue water.

This ending is totally implausible and simplistic, of course. But this is a Christmas movie, after all.