“Let’s have some decorum,” President Richard Pryor says in a White House press conference just before he jumps into the crowd to attack a journalist for asking a racist rhetorical question about his mother. In this 1977 sketch from the short-lived Richard Pryor Show, Pryor could well have been commenting on recent news about the relationship between the president and the media in the time of Donald Trump.* In the sketch, Pryor imagines himself as the 40th president of the United States—a position that went in fact to Trump’s touchstone, Ronald Reagan, whose so-called Reaganomics started a trend in exacerbating the American racial-economic inequalities that Pryor cited so often in his comedy routines.
When President Pryor channels generic political spin and defends the neutron bomb as “a neo-pacifist weapon,” I still hear Trump, though Trump would never use the Grecian prefix. Trump is less audible (almost an impossibility today) when Pryor’s critique of race emerges. Responding to a question about funding for the space program, Pryor says, “I feel it’s time that black people went to space. White people have been going to space for years, and spacing out on us as you might say. And I feel with the projects that we have in mind we’re going to send explorer ships to other galaxies, and no longer will they have the same type of music, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky. Now they’ll have the Miles Davis, Charlie Parker....”
If only Pryor were still alive to comment on Trump’s thinly superficial (and faint) praise for the long-dead nineteenth-century abolitionist Fredrick Douglass: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”
I bring up Richard Pryor and Donald Trump because we watched the 1985 version of Brewster’s Millions last weekend, or perhaps the previous weekend (a blur in busy times), continuing a series of viewings focused on Reaganomic movies, and I’m compelled by the resonance that this movie has with the current politics of the United States.
Can anyone be elected in the United States—regardless of sex, gender, race, class, age? Americans are not alone among people willing to elect the seemingly unsuitable and unqualified, but the election of Trump is nonetheless remarkable. Brewster’s Millions asks a more specific question: Would Americans elect a black millionaire who is otherwise unqualified for public office?
Brewster’s Millions is only one of many adaptations of a turn of the twentieth century novel by George Barr McCutcheon, which became a play and a series of films before Walter Hill adapted it and found Pryor and John Candy to play the leads. At least in this version, the story involves a black small-time baseball player, Montgomery Brewster (Pryor), whose elderly white relative (surprise!) dies and bequeaths him $300 million—but only if he can spend $30 million in 30 days without accumulating assets, giving more than 5% to charity, or destroying things that are “inherently valuable” such as works of art.
(This unlikely plot recalls Steve Martin’s 1979 movie, The Jerk, when Martin plays a white man who thought he was black, realizes he’s white, becomes a millionaire who squanders his money, and then re-integrates with his adoptive—but now rich—black family.)
The lesson is supposed to teach Brewster to hate spending and become frugal. It’s ironic, of course: the premise that conspicuous consumption might lead away from excess to moderation. Brewster sets to work hiring people—valuing the labour of typically under-paid people, with the exception of a few ritzy interior designers, lawyers, and money managers—but also has two inspired moments of how to spend money without gaining anything material. First, he buys the most expensive collector’s stamp in the world, then uses it as postage on a postcard. Second, and this one is special, he decides that the best way to waste other people’s money is to run for office.
His campaign for mayor is really a campaign against the establishment, so his slogan is “None of the Above,” a far cry from “Make America Great Again.” But in other ways his campaign is a lot like Trump’s was. Spin off your stardom from tabloids / Reality TV to municipal / federal politics. Buy votes shamelessly. Be the third way (as ironic as it is to say that in Canada where the third way is to the left). Have little respect for office and be honest about it, or seem to. Announcing his candidacy for mayor, Brewster says, “What I’m saying is, only an idiot would vote for me!” His follow-up, what he calls “the bottom line,” is that “I’m here to buy your votes.”
Later, at a big rally full of supporters, he declares that he is there “to see to it that neither of my opponents, nor me, win the election! I want to ask the question: Who’s buying the booze? ... And who’s trying to buy your vote? And who are you going to vote for?” The rallying cry is “None of the Above!” But the crowd really means him, and he later drops out of the race to prevent his actual winning. So Americans would elect a black millionaire! At least as mayor. And if he's funny enough.
A few of my friends now have said they plan to weather the Trumpnado by sitting back to be entertained while waiting for him to lose an election. But that's exactly what Trump wants us to do. He hates being criticized, but he loves to entertain.
Pryor’s critique of star politicians and their fans is that the masses don’t really care about the message as long as they are entertained, e.g., with “the booze.” It’s a classic—and class-based, Marxist—view of the public, one to which I will return in a moment when I ask whether the film itself undermine’s Pryor’s critique. First, consider that, because Brewster is entertaining, his public ignores his message of not supporting the establishment. Not supporting the establishment was perhaps the key premise of Trump’s campaign against the much better qualified Hillary Clinton. Pryor's satire here reveals that rich people like Trump are the establishment, just as much as political lineages such as the Clintons, the Bushes, and the Kennedys are. The people who vote for Brewster or Trump are the “idiot[s],” Pryor claims.
Could any idiot be elected in the United States? I reserve judgment on whether Trump would qualify; my point is that any millionaire could be elected. Brewster’s Millions shows us a world in which Americans vote for the money, possibly without realizing how it is the driving force of the corrupted politics that they want to oppose.
At the conclusion of Brewster’s Millions, Brewster does claim to be sick of spending money, but he does everything he can to get the $300 million—raising my question about the coherence of this movie’s satire. It ends with Brewster a millionaire without rules on how to spend his millions. In that sense, it promotes unregulated capitalism of the type that Trump supports. It does not promote the legitimacy of black men and women as entrepreneurs or in politics.
Further, this unregulated capitalism does have one apparent rule: that white men govern the black men’s money. The 1985 version of Brewster’s Millions can be seen as a pedantic, racially condescending film, because the white man has to train the black man in how to handle money. Worse, the film shows only the training, a frantic montage of conspicuous consumption akin to later hip hop videos, afore the bling became satirical too. Brewster’s claim to be sick of spending money is such a passing gesture, such an ambiguity. Is the mereness of the gesture a sign that Brewster has not learned the white man’s lesson, perhaps deliberately? If he had truly learned the lesson, would he have been so desperate in the final minutes to get the $300 million?
It’s a double bind. Either he plays by the rules of a white capitalist economy, or he remains an unemployed baseball player who has humiliated himself as entertainment before the masses. But maybe this is what Prior intended: to show, not only in the film but in its structural relationship with the economy of the culture industry, that black men in the United States are still not taken seriously, even when they are making the most serious of jokes.
* I’ve decided not to call it “the era of Donald Trump,” preferring to allude instead to the title of a Gabriel García Márquez novel.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “Presidents Pryor, Trump, and None of the Above." Publicly Interested, 19 February 2017, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.