Tuesday, February 01, 2011

For Sale: One Negro. As Is.

By Odienator
(for all posts, click here)

Those who assume the Black and White Guy Buddy Movie started with 48 Hrs. will need to look back 11 years prior. Celebrating its 40th anniversary, Paul Bogart’s 1971 comedy, Skin Game, pairs Lou Gossett Jr. with James Garner in a period piece with an unsavory topic. In 1857, two con men run a scam that features the sale of one and the revocation of said sale by the other. Garner sells Gossett at slave auctions, then helps him escape from his new Massa. The two split the money, much of which resides in a bank in the free state of Illinois. Only Jim Garner, a man my mother was in love with from Maverick to The Rockford Files, could be charming and roguish enough to craft a character whom you cannot despise, even if the con eventually becomes despicable.

The first time I saw this film, on VHS in the 80’s, I immediately thought of The Toy. Richard Donner’s remake of Le Jouet tries to walk the same tightrope, that of a Black man’s willful sale to a White man. Why The Toy is a failure, and just dying for a remake, is because the PG-rating couldn’t support Richard Pryor’s honest reaction to this turn of events. Instead, The Toy punks out at every turn, never addressing why a 12-year old boy would want a grown Black man as a toy, nor does it make believable that Pryor would allow the kid to disrespect him.  I don’t even recall Pryor weighing the racial repercussions of being sold to Ralph Kramden. Sure, he’s unemployed, but there’s always work at the Post Office.  He could have gotten a job there. The Toy needed the Richard Pryor of Bustin’ Loose, whose reaction to bad ass kids was more complicated and interesting.  Instead, this Donner party chooses to ignore the darker aspects of its premise. Perhaps this premise would have been more subversive—and more believable—had it been made in 1967 instead of 1982. Imagine Sidney Poitier being sold to a 12 year old White boy! On second thought, don’t do that.

Skin Game opens in Missouri in 1857, an important year for that state’s slave history. On March 6, 1857, Dred Scott lost his lawsuit for freedom. Regarding that case, I quote Wikipedia:

“According to the Court, the authors of the Constitution had viewed all blacks as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.

“The Court also presented a parade of horribles argument as to the feared results of granting Mr. Scott's petition:

“It would give to persons of the negro race, ...the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, ...the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went. “

Dred Scott is denied a mention in Skin Game, but the film tips its hat to Missouri injustice later. For now, Quincy (Garner) enters a bar and announces he is selling his prized slave, Jason (Gossett). Jason begs his Massa not to make the sale, but Quincy regrettably agrees to several hundred dollars for what the Constitution described as 3/5th of a human being. “He still has all his teeth,” Quincy assures the buyer, a line he will repeat during numerous sales, and which made absolutely no sense to me. What did teeth have to do with being a house servant? It’s not like Jason will get to eat the food he’s serving.

Cut to a scene in the woods, with Quincy and Jason reunited and splitting the money from the sale. Quincy complains that Jason is no longer commanding the prices they used to get for the con. He’s gone from $850 to $300, the going price for a House Negro at Walmart. Jason complains that perhaps Quincy is getting into his role a tad too much, denying Jason the ability to ride a horse during their long treks between hustles. Though Quincy sees Jason as his equal partner in the game, like Charlie in Purlie Victorious, he is not below flaunting his privileges as a White man. At one point, he borrows money from Jason so he can get a hotel room while Jason is forced to sleep in a horse stable in Kansas.

Kansas’ appearance here, in its Bleeding Kansas period, allow Skin Game to toss off a little more history. When Quincy mentions that he came from Missouri, he is given five dollars by one man and slugged in the face by another. As he and Jason walk through the town, they pass men orating on the pros and cons of allowing slavery to come into the state of Kansas. The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed the citizens  to vote on whether to have those states enter the Union as free or slave states. Lincoln and Douglass debated this in 1854, and when one of the Kansas orators mentions that Jason should be “happy and grateful” to be a slave, Quincy says “let’s see a little happy and grateful.” “Happy is the one where the mouth turns up?” asks Jason.

In Kansas, Quincy meets a hot White woman who turns out to be a better pickpocket and crook than he could ever be. She lifts his gold watch and the five bucks he was given by the pro-slavery guy. When Jason casually explains how she did it—by playing on Quincy’s horny distraction—he gets especially irritated about the watch.

“That was my daddy’s watch!” he says.
“Horse feathers,” says Jason, “you fobbed it off a circuit-riding preacher from Lexington.”

Quincy meets up again with our female thief, Ginger, in his hotel room. Ginger is played by Katherine Papadapolis herself, Susan Clark. (You know how we love our Papadapoli here at Black History Mumf!) Ginger screws him, literally in the bathtub and figuratively when she runs off with all his money a few scenes later. Meanwhile, in the stables, Jason meets a beautiful slave wench played by Brenda Sykes. She is being sold by her Massa’s wife because she’s running on The Wench Is Too Damn Hot party ticket. In the 70’s, Sykes cornered the market on bed wenches in movies, and here, her Naomi gives Jason the tumble in the hay her Massa’s wife fears she’ll give Massa.

Before Quincy gets robbed by Ginger, Jason takes $1,000 from his cut of the profits and asks Quincy to buy Naomi. Trust me, she’s worth it. 

 I'd pay $1000 for this.

Quincy does, but soonafter Skin Game tosses an actual historical figure into the plot. Anti-slavery activist John Brown, appearing in the guise of Royal Dano and his uber-beard, goes buckwild on slave buyers and takes off with Naomi and Jason. 

 He looks like the old Proctor and Gamble logo.

In a somewhat implausible plot device, Jason is reunited with Quincy in the woods, where Quincy promises to stop pulling the slave-selling switcharoo. This promise is broken when Quincy finds out that Ma’am, I mean Ginger, has emptied his wallet.

Earlier in the film, Jason and Quincy encountered a slave catcher played by Lou Grant. Edward Asner’s role is small, but effective and far from his character in Up. Asner is illegally rounding up free Blacks and marching them down South to be enslaved. Jason himself was born free (“in the great state of New Jersey,” says Gossett, inspiring cheers from this fellow Joisey Boy) and had met up with Quincy for the first time in a Philadelphia jail. But that doesn’t matter to Asner, whose first attempt to steal Jason is foiled, but whose second attempt succeeds and turns Skin Game a little darker than it had been up to this point.

Captured by Asner thanks to Quincy’s mistake of re-entering Missouri, Jason is reunited with Naomi and sold as a couple to Andrew Duggan. This scene, where Asner and a fellow formerly swindled by our heroes, negotiate over selling Jason despite Quincy’s pleas, evokes the government sentiment I quoted above vis-à-vis Dred Scott’s case. Jason is treated like property, even after he reveals that he was born a free man.  Quincy goes to jail for fighting and theft, and Jason goes to Andrew Duggan’s plantation.  Just after the sale, Jason pleads to Duggan that “as a fair man,” he’d understandably let him go because he is free. Jason’s speech sounds more educated than anybody else’s in the picture. He uses some big words as he explains how he wound up in the situation that led him to Duggan.

“That’s the goddamndest thing I’ve ever heard,” says Duggan. “The goddamndest thing I ever heard. I never heard a Nigra talk like that.” Then he pulls his gun. “If I ever hear it again, I’m gonna blow your Black ass off! Understand me, boy?”

“Yassir boss,” says Jason in his best slave dialect. “Sho’ do.”

Unfortunately, talking like a White boy gets Jason put under the lash. As Naomi tends to his wounds, other slaves, some of whom have “no Negro dialect” as Joe Biden once said, give Jason a lesson on how to survive the plantation. While this is occurring plot-wise, Quincy and Ginger are making cutesy goo-goo eyes at each other after a clever prison break orchestrated by Ginger. I don’t think the romantic scenes were wise at this point, even if they do give us some comical flashbacks of how Quincy and Jason met. Director Bogart gets back on track by alternating between Quincy and Ginger’s search for Jason, and Jason’s discovery of some African history via some slaves he meets on the plantation.

When Jason is enslaved, I wondered if he, being a free man his entire life, ever considered the true horror and ramifications of slavery beforehand. After all, he’s being sold as part of a con, and while Gossett’s dialogue implies that he knows, it appears his eyes are opened wide enough to regret his role in Quincy’s con after he gets a taste of plantation life. In their final scene together, after Jason has been rescued and violently vindicated, Quincy tells him “we’re enough alike to be brothers.” “Except for one little thing,” says Jason, “one difference. I can be bought and sold like a horse, and you can do the selling.”
Skin Game uses a race to Mexico to deliver a happy, though contrived ending for Jason and Naomi. Ginger and Quincy ride off into the sunset, to future cons and places unknown. Just like 48 Hrs., our Black and White protagonists say their goodbyes while hinting that they may meet up again. Unlike 48 Hrs.’ heroes, Quincy and Jason don’t team up again. That, like Another 48 Hrs, would have been unnecessary. 

(Warners put this out on its Archive label. It has no menus and chapter stops every 10 minutes, and it cost me $30 to buy the DVD. The one plus is that it restored the film to its widescreen glory after all the years of me seeing it pan and scan.)

This is for screwing us out of Manhattan, Paleface!!


Anonymous said...

Great review. I'd read about this film back in high school, in some movie review guide devoted to cult films and the like, and I'd made a mental note to check it out. Unfortunately, I could never find it in any local video stores in the pre-internet era, and I forgot about it. Until now.

Also, count me in as someone who'd love to see "The Toy" remade, but with all of the nasty racial undercurrents of the plot brought to the forefront of the story. Oh, to see the Richard Pryor of "Which Way Is Up?" or "Blue Collar" turned loose on that shit...

odienator said...

Scott, Netflix didn't have this on DVD, and I only had a VHS copy (but no VCR anymore--mine gave up the ghost after 20 years of service). So I went to the Warner Archives and I found it. They don't give you any additional material, nor do they even give you a credible main menu. It also didn't play in my laptop at first. But still, it's worth having these archives for folks who just want to see these movies again.

It's too bad the two comedians who'd kick ass in a remake of the Toy, Bernie Mac and Pryor himself (unleashed this time), are dead. Still you should have hope, as I once wrote a treatment for a remake of The Toy, but tossed it in a box somewhere in my house eons ago. If I can find it, it's on! :)

Anonymous said...

A serious take on "The Toy" would have to delve into some seriously murky waters, and when it comes to films involving race, I think there's some gaping vaginas on both sides of the fence. Studio execs are too nervous about protests and accusations of insensitivity. Audiences are too afraid of being seriously challenged on their own shit -- white, black, whatever -- and leery of stories that don't have neat, tidy resolutions. Which no truly serious film about racial issues could have.

A balls-out take on a story like "The Toy" would be messier than your bedsheets after banging a fat girl on a hot afternoon in the middle of August. But it wouldn't be any messier than the real-life stuff that it's actually reflecting, so...

Anonymous said...

"What did teeth have to do with being a house servant? It’s not like Jason will get to eat the food he’s serving."

I think it's meant to highlight that slave trading was thought of in the same way as horse trading.
Slaves were considered livestock and good dental health, in man or beast is a strong indicator of general vigour.
Hence the phrase, 'don't look a gift horse in the mouth' - as the quality is less important when you get it free!

Thanks for your blog, I enjoy you writing on stuff an Irishman living in Cornwall, the least ethnically diverse part of the uk, doesn't usually get to hear about.

odienator said...

Thanks for your blog, I enjoy you writing on stuff an Irishman living in Cornwall, the least ethnically diverse part of the uk, doesn't usually get to hear about.

I've been to Cornwall, believe it or not. Thank you for the explanation. It makes sense, but if I were buying slaves--well, if I were buying slaves I'd have to bid on myself--but if I were buying them, I'd never think to look at their teeth! I'd want to make sure they can pick mah cotton!