For the past year, political journalists across the ideological spectrum have worked to understand Donald Trump and his voters. What drove their frustration and anger? Why did they gravitate toward Trump versus other political figures? A cottage industry sprang up around the drive to answer those questions, with stories that followed a kind of template: nuanced, empathic portraits of working-class whites living in former industrial towns and cities that have long since fallen from their former glory.
Few of these stories were bad, but most of them suffered from the same blind spot: race. In telling the story of the white workers who backed Trump, they missed the perspective of the black ones who rejected him. This is important. Without that perspective, you risk downplaying the consequences of Trump support—not for supporters, but for the groups Trump has targeted throughout his campaign. Empathy without clarity leads to a place where Trump’s material threat to nonwhites—“stop and frisk,” mass deportation, Muslim surveillance, etc.—is treated as incidental to the story of Trump and his support, when it’s the opposite.
One outlet managed to convey that nuance the other night. Improbably, it was Saturday Night Live. Political humor is old hat on Saturday Night Live, but it’s rare to see anything with real subtlety or sophistication. In general, we get caricatures and impressions—exaggerated renderings of individuals, ideas, and events. Occasionally, those renderings are so brilliant that they add something to our larger understanding of a particular politician. Most times, they aren’t and they don’t.
This past Saturday, however, SNL struck gold with one of its sharpest political sketches in recent memory. Instead of Kate McKinnon doing her repressed-mania bit as Hillary Clinton or Alec Baldwin playing the fleshy id of Donald Trump, we had three ordinary people as contestants on “Black Jeopardy!”, a recurring bit on the show. Kenan Thompson played the host, with Leslie Jones and Sasheer Zamata as two of the three competitors. The third was Doug, played by Tom Hanks wearing a denim shirt, graying facial hair, and a red “Make America Great Again” hat, and speaking as if through a freshly applied hunk of Skoal. In past versions of the sketch, the white contestants are too tied to their whiteness and their political correctness to accurately answer questions about black cultural tropes and stereotypes, which is to say that these bits are typically little more than refurbished Sinbad jokes.
At first, that’s what we seem to have with Hanks’ character. Thompson is skeptical that Doug is in the right place, and when he interjects after questions, Thompson is dismissive. But then Doug begins to answer questions. When Thompson reads a clue for the category “They Out Here Saying”—“They out here saying, the new iPhone wants your thumbprint ‘for your protection’ ”—Doug gives a correct response: “What is, I don’t think so, that’s how they get you.”
When Thompson reads a second clue for that category—“They out here saying that every vote counts”—Doug answers again, and again correctly: “What is, come on, they already decided who wins even ’fore it happens.” With each correct answer, Doug gets cheers and applause from Thompson, the black contestants, and the black audience. They all seem to understand the world in similar ways. “I really appreciate you saying that,” says Thompson after Doug praises Tyler Perry’s Madea movies, leading to an awkward moment where Hanks’ character recoils in fear as Thompson tries to shake his hand, but then relaxes and accepts the gesture.
By this point, the message is clear. On this episode of “Black Jeopardy!”, the questions are rooted in feelings of disempowerment, suspicion of authority, and working-class identity—experiences that cut across racial lines. Thompson and the guests are black, but they can appreciate the things they share with Doug, and in turn, Doug grows more and more comfortable in their presence, such that he gets a “pass” from the group after he refers to them as “you people.” That moment is funny, but it also foreshadows the end of the sketch, where this message of commonality—even solidarity—is tweaked and made more complicated.
“Doug, I have to say it’s been a pleasure,” says Thompson as the sketch comes to an end. “Well, right back at you my brother,” says Hanks.
“All right, well, let’s take a look at our Final Jeopardy category,” announces Thompson, “ ‘Lives That Matter.’ ”
Jones and Zamata turn to look skeptically at Hanks’ character, while Thompson laughs and gives the punchline. “Well, it was good while it lasted, Doug.” To which Hanks says, “I have a lot to say about this.” And then the sketch comes to a close.
Because the bulk of the sketch is this humanizing back-and-forth between Doug, the black host, the black contestants, and the black audience, it’s easy to read the message as a plea for tolerance and understanding. There’s more that unites us than there is that divides us. You can even add a class analysis: Black Americans share more than just common culture with some Trump supporters; they share common interests. There are important limits to this, beyond the universe of SNL: Because of its roots in the South, black culture shares an affinity with the rural white life that Doug represents. It’s not clear this would exist between, say, a black audience and a Trump-supporting professional from outside Milwaukee. But at this point, the sketch’s argument seems barely implicit: We need to work together instead of pitting ourselves against each other.
Then comes the final punchline, “Lives That Matter.” Obviously, the answer to the question is “black.” But Doug has “a lot to say about this.” Which suggests that he doesn’t think the answer is that simple. Perhaps he thinks “all lives matter,” or that “blue lives matter,” the phrasing used by those who defend the status quo of policing and criminal justice. Either way, this puts him in direct conflict with the black people he’s befriended. As viewers, we know that “Black Lives Matter” is a movement against police violence, for the essential safety and security of black Americans. It’s a demand for fair and equal treatment as citizens, as opposed to a pervasive assumption of criminality.
Thompson, Zamata, and Jones might see a lot to like in Doug, but if he can’t sign on to the fact that black Americans face unique challenges and dangers, then that’s the end of the game. Tucked into this six-minute sketch is a subtle and sophisticated analysis of American politics. It’s not that working blacks and working whites are unable to see the things they have in common; it’s that the material interests of the former—freedom from unfair scrutiny, unfair detention, and unjust killings—are in direct tension with the identity politics of the latter (as represented in the sketch by the Trump hat). And in fact, if Hanks’ character is a Trump supporter, then all the personal goodwill in the world doesn’t change the fact that his political preferences are a direct threat to the lives and livelihoods of his new friends, a fact they recognize.
Now, this sketch isn’t some exercise in didacticism. It’s genuinely funny with great performances from everyone involved. But it does make a firm statement about our political world: that racism is a huge obstacle to a kind of class solidarity. And that, as long as real-life Dougs hold on to their identity politics, that obstacle will remain.