'Black Jeopardy' Sketch Is Compelling Analysis, 'Slate' Correspondent Says

Originally published on October 26, 2016 7:33 am
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(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Johnny) This is "Black Jeopardy."

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Those words began a recent "Saturday Night Live" skit which has captured more attention from political writers than many a political speech. On "Black Jeopardy," the host, Kenan Thompson, offers answers and questions you would supposedly only get right if you were clued in to black culture.

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KENAN THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) Let's see our categories. We got...

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) ...Big Girls.

(LAUGHTER, SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) I'm Gonna Pray On This.

(LAUGHTER, SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) They Out Here Saying.

(LAUGHTER, SOUNDBITE OF BELL)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) And as always, White People.

INSKEEP: Yet, something happens in the skit after it's revealed that one of the three contestants is white, a blue collar guy in a Donald Trump make-America-great-again hat, played by Tom Hanks. Jamelle Bouie of Slate is one of many who wrote about this. And he's in our studios. Good morning, thanks for coming by.

JAMELLE BOUIE: Good morning, thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: OK. So let's listen to one of the exchanges involving Tom Hanks.

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THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) They out here saying the new iPhone wants your thumbprint for your protection.

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THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) Oh, OK then. Doug.

TOM HANKS: (As Doug) Well, what is - I don't think so. That's how they get you.

THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) Yes. Yes.

(APPLAUSE)

SASHEER ZAMATA: (As Keeley) I don't trust that.

LESLIE JONES: (As Shanice) Me, either.

HANKS: (As Doug) No, I read that goes straight to the government.

INSKEEP: So the African-American characters are saying, wait a minute. You're paranoid too.

BOUIE: (Laughter) Right. It's, you know, it's worth saying, right before this moment, they are very skeptical of Doug and whether or not he even belongs. But that answer and subsequent answers begins an interaction where the African-American characters - the two black contestants, Kenan Thompson and the audience, in a way - begins to see Doug as one of them, or at least someone who understands the world in similar ways as them.

INSKEEP: And why is that surprising?

BOUIE: I think it's surprising just as a viewer because when you see Doug's outfit or Tom Hanks' character, he's in this denim jacket. He is wearing the make-America-great-again hat.

INSKEEP: He's got the goatee.

BOUIE: Right, right. And you imagine that this is going to be a caricature and mainly poking fun at someone like Doug. But in fact, it is, I think, an attempt at building empathy, that Doug is blue-collar. African-American culture and especially the working culture of African-Americans is very much rooted in some kind of rural environment, as a lot of white-blue-collar culture is.

And both groups feel a kind of disenfranchisement, a kind of disempowerment that comes across how they understand the world. And so through this sketch - and it's very humorous and lighthearted - you begin to get inklings of that and evidence of that.

INSKEEP: You know, we had a conversation with President Obama in July. And he said something that I was reminded of when watching this skit. He was saying that historically in the South, you had African-Americans, and you had poor white people who were farmers, who were from similar economic backgrounds but kept apart by race. Is that the point of this skit here?

BOUIE: I think that is the point of this sketch, or at least one of the implications of the sketch up until the very end of the sketch. And so the last joke, the last - the last set-up is the Final Jeopardy! category, which is Lives That Matter.

INSKEEP: Let's listen to that. Let's listen to that last joke.

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THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) Let's take a look at our Final Jeopardy! category - Lives That Matter.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) Well, it was good while it lasted, Doug.

HANKS: (As Doug) I know. I got a lot to say about this.

THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) Yeah, I'm sure you do.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: (As Darnell Hayes) When we come back...

INSKEEP: Everybody's looking at Doug. Everybody's looking at Doug to see if he wants to say which lives matter. He doesn't have anything to say at first.

BOUIE: Right, right. And I think the implication from Doug's answer or Doug's beginning of an answer - I have a lot of things to say about this - is that he isn't going to say what we as viewers know is the correct answer, Black Lives Matter. He might say, all lives matter or blue lives matter. Or he just might rant about the question in general. And I think that, that set-up and punchline recontextualizes the entire sketch. Before then, it is very much a sketch about common culture, about empathy.

But after that, it becomes a sketch about the chief obstacle, right? It becomes a sketch about the fact that black Americans have this core concern about their safety, about their status as equal citizens that is kind of overriding above all else. And if someone like Doug can't get behind it, then all that other common culture and common empathy sort of is irrelevant as far as politics goes. They can be friends. They can like each other. But they - if they're going to cooperate, they need to agree on this very core concern to black people.

INSKEEP: Is this sketch on "Saturday Night Live" saying something that a lot of political writing has not? There's been a lot of writing about Trump voters and other kinds of voters this year.

BOUIE: I think it is in sort of subtle ways. A lot of the writing on Trump voters this year has been very empathetic and very - you might even say sort of permissive about how voters are reacting. It sort of is - I wouldn't say it's denying them agency, but it kind of sidesteps the question of exactly who they are supporting and why - not why they are supporting, but the implications of their support. And it seems to suggest that there really aren't any consequences for other people from the support for Trump among some white working-class voters.

I think the sketch is push-back on that, which is that, yes, you know, if Trump voters are supporting a vision of America that does not have room for Black Lives Matter or for similar political movements - and that this is a real problem, that this is a real obstacle and that we shouldn't look past it just because people might really be suffering.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, Jamelle Bouie, thanks very much.

BOUIE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's chief political correspondent at Slate. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.