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Examine the Ways in Which Hollywood Cinema Has Conventionally Represented African Americans

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I will be examining some of the ways in which Hollywood cinema conventionally represents African Americans with relevance to the film Trading Places. Trading Places (1983) is a good example of how Hollywood cinema represents African-Americans because it does so in different ways. It is a typical black and white �buddy’ film in which it has paired together an African American star with a white star in order to attract both audiences, however, not bypassing the representations that Hollywood imply.

Billy Ray Valentine is a down-and-out con artist whose life abruptly gets turned around when two elderly stock brokers place a bet, a bet that will see if he can change into a wealthy businessman from his criminal background. In the process the two stock brokers or the �Dukes’ will be putting one of their best employees, Louis Winthorpe III, drastically out of business, framed for crimes he didn’t commit to see if he will turn to crime in the end. A nasty plot over a one dollar bet turns out to have a humorous twist.

The most noticeable representation is that of Eddie Murphy put into the comical role rather than a serious snob that Dan Aykroyd plays. By being a comical character, he is put into situations where rather than a serious debate he is able to use humour as a defence mechanism making it slightly more light hearted, demeaning his intelligence and fulfilling what a prejudiced audience has begun to expect of this sort of role. Ed Guerrero has said “And while Murphy gets the upper hand in almost all filmic encounters and confrontations, the ultimate result of such a challenge is integration and acceptance on White terms in these film’s plots and resolutions.” (1993: 244)

As I mentioned earlier, Eddie Murphy’s character Billy Ray Valentine is a type cast. He has been placed in this role for comedic purposes. It is typical of Hollywood to have a black man acting out such a persona, always using humour, sometimes so much so, that when he is being serious it cannot always be identified. This is because an audience would not expect a black character to be straight faced; it would be out of character so to speak. To contrast with Murphy’s character is Dan Aykroyd’s character of Louis Winthorpe. He is the typical white snob of the film, or so it appears at the start. A character with a nose he looks down on everyone with, a comfortable job, nice home and surroundings, and a butler waiting on his every need. He needn’t lift a finger, until he is forced into a completely different life. The Dukes’ quite cleverly prove that it is not what you are but who you are that matters. It doesn’t matter that they are either black or white, it so happens that both Valentine and Winthorpe can fail but more importantly both can be successful. A vague opinion, but I feel that this is true once the film is watched through. It is a comedy with quite a strong meaning behind it that can only be fully understood if an audience has grasped the contrast between the characters.

Relationships between characters become more apparent as the film goes on. The love life of Louis Winthorpe is a very proper and moderate one, he has a fiancÐ"©e which he is clearly seen to be happy and comfortable with, and there are no explicit references to a perverse couple. The white man has the attractive intelligent woman, who is well spoken and has manners. This seems to be the man with the money gets the girl.

This has the strongest distinction between their characters, as Valentine has a much more abrupt approach. At the very beginning of the film he is grasping at ladies skirts, with a much more unappealing way with words. Yet, when he becomes an employee of The Duke and Duke Company, he now has the money and yet still goes for the prostituted girls with little clothing and no manners to speak of. This is one of Hollywood’s ways on representing African Americans, with their sexual relations. They either don’t have a relationship or they are tainted in more ways than one. Ed Guerrero argues;

�Additionally though, when it has come to the representation of Black romance or sexuality on the screen, Hollywood has almost entirely avoided or repressed the former and, to this day, has depicted the latter in the most distorted and perverse terms and images.’ (1993: 238)

A noticeable typecast is that of the manual labour jobs in the entirety of the film. Such small roles, more like background characters, are specifically chosen as black men. For example in Trading Places it is jobs such as a bus driver. He may not speak to be noticed but it is stereotyped. Another is the part of the Dukes’ driver, he is also silent, even when approached by Murphy’s character. What is quite interesting in this film is how they use �blackface’ in it. �Blackface’ is where an American actor uses black face paint to cover over their own face to act out a black role. It is not the actor Aykroyd who does this but his role of Winthorpe’s character that does this at the end of the film. He does it to deceive the character of Clarence Beeks, and as Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin argue,

�Although recent research has revealed many cultural complexities within the blackface tradition, the practice was still dependant upon broad and mostly demeaning stereotypes, being in effect the white man’s misguided perception of what black lives were actually like.’ (2004: 76) They also mention about how �Hollywood kept African American actors in smaller supporting roles was so prejudiced audiences would not have to watch an entire movie about a Negro, or worse yet, see a black character who was smart, strong, and independent.’ (2004: 81)

There are some minor details that I would choose as being relevant because they may not be noticed normally. Such things as colour contrast between objects as well as people. It can be seen in one of the final scenes of the film where Valentine is in the toilet cubicle just as the two big bosses Dukes’ walk in and start to talk privately. Valentine is in the cubicle which is black in colour and a very shadowed area. The two Dukes’ are in the main part of the bathroom, and can



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