Before Django There Was Skin Game


Thanks to contrarian extraordinaire Armond White, I came across an under the radar film called Skin Game (1971), starring the late James Garner and the great Lou Gossett Jr. of Fiddler fame. White has referenced the film quite a bit in his fun house mirror reviews, where up is down, down is up, and that rock on a “friend’s trip” to Joshua Tree truly is giving you advice on how to get your girl back. Say what you want about the film critic, though, he’s an encyclopedia of film. And not just the Academy’s canon either. It’s just, you have to separate the wheat from the chaff. So when he pilloried Get Out — “Get Out does not rank with America’s notable race comedies,” — and propped up the likes of Eddie Murphy’s Norbit alongside Skin Game instead, I didn’t know what to think.

Not all shout outs are created equal.

White also suggested Skin Game as a counterpoint to QT’s blockbuster Django Unchained (though not in those words), and I finally had to take notice. I had my own issues with Django, including with the film’s setup and whose story it actually was.

Skin Game’s set up is so much more groundbreaking and creative and in a hasty moment, I started texting a few film friends that they have to watch this “brilliant movie.” Garner and Gossett star as Quincy and Jason, two conmen from the north who’ve made their way south for their latest game. In the increasingly unstable decade before the Civil War, Quincy plays the part of slaveowner looking to sell Jason to the highest white sucker. With the sale barely finalized and cash pocketed, Quincy rescues Jason and the two hightail it out of there to split the profits.

While Jersey-born free black man Jason does the shuck and jive act to sell the part, in the long moments before and after the masquerade, he and Quincy are equal partners and even friends. In a fun little montage, we flash back to some of the duos other hijinks. In an early meeting, Quincy sells Jason a fine steed that belongs to the local sheriff.

Beneath the jovial and slapstick surface, though, there’s a more serious movie here that’s willing to explore the consequences of this unusual pairing. As Quincy and Jason move on to (Bleeding) Kansas, the two have their first run in with actual toiling slaves, which jolts the black con man a bit more than the white one. A lazy and emotionally dishonest take might even assess that Jason thought he was “above” ever being in chains but the truth is no one ever knows fully what something is until they experience it. And through the experience, Jason has his consciousness raised.

Jason wants to get out of the game but they end up embroiled in one final score just as fiery abolitionist John Brown storms into town with a reckoning for the white planter class. Eventually, two white men duped by our heroes catch up to Jason, and the more villainous one, a brutal slave trader actually sells Jason into slavery with a jailed Quincy unable to intercede.

Since White referenced an Eddie Murphy flick so will I. 1999’s Life tries (and often fails) to balance the lighthearted chemistry of Murphy and Martin Lawrence with the serious realities of convict leasing during the Jim Crow era. All of a sudden, Skin Game can’t be quite as fun, though at times it still wants to be. As Jason goes through his descent into slavery, and Quincy is quickly rescued by his pickpocket adversary/love interest Ginger, the film really starts to suffer tonally. Seemingly five minutes of screen time is spent on Quincy and Ginger canoodling in a field full of dandelions while Jason arrives at a plantation.

On the one hand, it’s a bit consistent with the con man’s ethos (and part of Quincy’s growth involves him not just thinking about the bottomline), but it kind of feels tone deaf too in the same way that Huck Finn’s protracted antics are juxtaposed to Jim toiling away in a shed waiting for rescue.

What actually matters to the hipster racist?

Speaking of sheds, Jason luckily remains an active character even while in bondage, and befriends a group of burly Songhai men kept in a barn in close proximity to the horses they train. Meanwhile, romance finally established, Quincy and Ginger do go on the hunt for Jason, scouring the south disguised, at one point, as priest and nurse, concerned about slaves carrying something equivalent to the plague. And never one to eschew a good con, the two knock on doors claiming to have an expensive serum to prevent and cure.

Eventually, Jason and Quincy reunite, but not before a particularly tragic scene where Jason eloquently tells his new master the sordid tale that led him, a free man, into the clutches of the cruel slaver that sold him off. For a second, we think the master is swayed. But then he takes out his gun and tells him to never speak like that again. Then, an overseer is called, though luckily the camera pulls away before we see what we know will happen next. For this white master, Jason just does not compute and I can recall moments in my own life being at the short end of a similar dissonance.

The calvary finally arrives and Jason and Quincy reunite and stage a mutiny with a major assist from Jason’s Songhai pals. And unlike Django, Skin Game doesn’t play dumb about who its true villain is and who deserves to fell him. I’m not surprised anymore when in some ways, films of old are more forward-thinking and revolutionary than films of today. Of course, I say that as I also acknowledge that the film does make “primitive” Native American and African culture the butt of the joke on a few occasions, including its Songhai payoff.

It’s worth noting that Skin Game is Warner Brother Studios’ 2000th production. A few years later, a tv movie/pilot Sidekicks continued the story of our cunning conmen, with Lou Gossett reprising his role, though the actual series was nixed.


Ade Adeniji