SNL’s ongoing “Black Jeopardy” series has been, in part, about divisions. In each edition, black American contestants answer Kenan Thompson’s clues with in-jokes, slang, and their shared opinions while an outsider—say, Elizabeth Banks as the living incarnation of Becky, Louis C.K. as a BYU African American Studies professor, or Drake as a black Canadian—just show their cluelessness.
When Tom Hanks showed up in a “Make America Great Again” hat and bald-eagle shirt to play the contestant “Doug” this weekend, it seemed like the set-up for the ugliest culture clash yet. The 2016 election has been a reminder of the country’s profound racial fault lines, and SNL hasn’t exactly been forgiving toward the Republican nominee on that front: Its version of Trump hasn’t been able to tell black people apart, and it aired a mock ad painting his supporters as white supremacists—which, inarguably, some of them really are.
But this time the Black Jeopardy contestants came to be pleasantly surprised as Doug answered the questions correctly. SNL’s viewers might have felt a similar sense of amazement as they realized that this particular sketch didn’t quite come at the expense of Trump’s supporters. Smartly and hilariously, it suggested an idea that’s novel in 2016: Maybe America isn’t as helplessly divided as it seems.
Part of the common ground is economics—many white Trump supporters are as familiar with financial desperation as many black Americans are. Thompson’s host Darnell Hayes asks Doug whether he’s sure he wants to play black Jeopardy; Doug says he’s just hoping to win some money, so “get ’er done.” When lottery scratcher tickets get mentioned, Doug chimes in, “I play that every week.” On a question of what to do when your brakes are busted, Doug correctly answers, “You better go to that dude in my neighborhood who’ll fix anything for 40 dollars” (Hayes: “You know Cecil?!” “Yeah, but my Cecil’s name is Jimmy”).
But the sketch goes further, pointing out that social conditions shape worldview and culture. Everyone on stage distrusts the idea of giving their thumbprint to an iPhone. Everyone on stage agrees that elections are decided by the elite (the Illumanti?) before the votes are cast. Doug’s lifestyle even means he’s come to love Tyler Perry movies: “I bought a box set at Walmart. And if I can laugh and pray in 90 minutes, that’s money well spent.”
Hanks and Thompson’s performances help nail the sketch’s humor and strange poignance. The gravelly Doug seems matter-of-fact as he battles his nervousness, stumbling into the occasional questionable remark about “you people.” The host Hayes, meanwhile, goes from dismissal to total delight. At one point, he comes over to shake Doug’s hand; Doug recoils, scared Hayes has been offended, but then they awkwardly embrace.
A vision of healing? Not quite. The final Jeopardy question category is “Lives That Matter.” Everyone freezes, knowing that Doug’s answer—which we don’t see—might not be so agreeable as his previous ones. “Well it was good while it lasted, Doug,” Hayes says. One implication is race isn’t just an illusory divide. Another is both hopeful and a bit depressing: People casting opposing ballots in November might not realize just how much they have in common.
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