Julie Hambleton
Julie Hambleton
May 13, 2024 ·  3 min read

“Trading Places” and the challenge of troubling art of the past

Trading Places is a comedic film that came out in 1983. It stars Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis. The movie was directed by John Landis and written by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod based on the story by George Tabori. At the time of its release, it was somewhat controversial – and there are certainly some reasons why. Some argue, however, that this film is still quite relevant today amidst all of the racial tensions that still exist in America.

Trading Places Is Still Relevant Today

The comedy Trading Places is a movie that questions the idea of nature versus nurture and its role in success. It follows two characters: Dan Aykroyd as Louis Winthorpe III, a wealthy managing director at a Philadelphia commodities-trading firm, and Eddie Murphy as Billy Ray Valentine, a homeless beggar. The two men have an encounter in which Winthorpe falsely accuses Valentine of trying to steal his briefcase. The owners of Winthorpe’s firm, Mortimer and Randolph Duke, decide to make a bet as to whether simply having status and wealth or not changes your behavior. (1)

The brothers lift Valentine out of poverty, giving him all of the things that Winthorpe has always had: Money, status, a network, and a job. They take all of that away from Winthorpe and wait to see how quickly Valentine begins acting like an entitled elite and how quickly Winthorpe turns to stealing in his life without a job and living on the streets. (2)

Nature Versus Nurture

The movie is essentially looking at race and classism. Neither white nor black people by nature are more or less likely to live a life of crime. Rather, it is the circumstances that you are in that will bring that about. Sadly, the movie still holds much relevance today. Still in the United States (and in many other countries around the world), white people are born into privilege and black people are not. There are generations of privilege that set white people up for success, whereas there are generations of poverty that prevent black people from achieving it. That generational poverty dates all the way back to the days of slavery, where black people were denied every basic human right imaginable. (3)

In Trading Places, Winthorpe almost immediately turns to stealing and petty crime when he has all of his privilege stripped away from him. Meanwhile, Valentine thrives. It shows that when you are just handed privilege, the path to success and wealth is a much easier, shorter path. When you come from nothing, you have a lot further to go and have to work much harder to get even half way.

Why Is The Movie Controversial?

Of course, this movie was made in the 80s, so there are some things that both back then and now make people cringe. There is questionable language, principally the use of the “N” word. There is also a scene in which Dan Akyroyd dons blackface. The movie itself is quite progressive in the way it portrays Jamie Lee Curtis’ character Ophelia, who is a sex worker. Ophelia was not a sex worker because of any kind of trauma or troubled past. Rather, she chose her line of work for the economic benefit. She’s smart, independent, and sexual on her own terms and in her own way. 

One downside to this is how incredibly progressively they portrayed Ophelia, the white sex worker, whereas the black woman you can see Valentine with at the end of the film gets no recognition at all. Whereas Ophelia, the white sex worker, is given so much character development, we never learn who the black woman at the end of the movie is. It is a shame that she wasn’t given any more agency, herself.

Take The Movie For What It Is Worth

Are there some troubling scenes and language in the film Trading Places? Yes, that is for sure. There are certainly some scenes that are offensive in many ways. That being said, it is still a relevant comedy in that it highlights the juxtaposition between the ever present white privilege (and white male privilege, at that) and the lack of privilege presented to people of color. There are many lessons you can learn from this movie, even 35 years later.


  1. “Trading Places” and the challenge of troubling art of the past.” Economist. January 7, 2020.
  2. Trading Places (1983) Problematic Masterpiece…?Lost in Movies. Amber. November 25, 2020.
  3. ‘Trading Places’ Still A Socially Relevant Christmas Comedy.” Black Girl Nerds. Sezin Koehler.