A week before the death of George Floyd, I re-watched two classic 80s American comedies – National Lampoon’s Vacation and Coming to America. Two scenes struck me even then.
In the first, Chevy Chase’s Clark W. Griswold plays it cool after driving the family into an African-American city neighbourhood, and nonchalantly asks someone for directions back to the highway while his car’s tyres are quietly removed.
In the second, Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem and his aide, Arsenio Hall’s Semmi, rock up outside a tenement in Queens and go in search of a bedsit to rent as their luggage is pilfered from behind their backs by the locals.
Why did audiences laugh?
Neither scene would probably be made today, and yet either would still resonate. The only difference might be the addition of Hispanic Americans alongside the African-Americans.
And the argument would probably go that the joke is not on the poor African-Americans in either case. It’s on the bumbling white guy and the African prince. As long as they’re the butt of the joke, it’s ok. Right?
We all get the joke. It’s about deprived urban neighbourhoods. The same jokes are directed at Liverpudlians or Glaswegians in Britain, with possible undertones of anti-Irish sentiment. In Greece, theft is invariably blamed on Albanians.
A version of these jokes could probably be found everywhere in the world: poverty and its associations with crime and potential violence. The popular imagination will always be inclined to put a name and a face to that threat.
Of course, nothing confers an inferior social status like state-sanctioned slavery. That is a level of dispossession of which America – and many other societies – are still grappling with the consequences.
On the subject of popular imaginations, Britain Isn’t What It Used To Be