Silver Streak (1976)


“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” –Helen Keller, author and political activist

Every now and then, I watch a movie and wonder where it has been hiding my whole life. Silver Streak was one of those movies for me today.

When George (Gene Wilder) gets kicked off a train for witnessing a murder, he teams up with Grover (Richard Pryor) to get back to the train and save his damsel in distress. While this laugh-out-loud movie always maintains its comedic tones, it dips its toe into other genres. There is some mystery and suspense indicative of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959). Towards the end, I felt like I was watching Denzel Washington’s action-packed train adventure, Unstoppable (2010).

The comedic timing is flawless. After missing a car collision by the skin of his teeth and coming to a screeching halt, Wilder turns to Pryor and ever so calmly asks, “Would you like to drive for a while?” Some of the dynamic duo’s R-rated movies have a tendency to get cluttered up with foul language and raunchiness, but this movie shines because the endearing characters drag the audience along for every twist and turn of their mission. George’s mission is to save his new love. Grover’s mission is to stylishly escape his problems. While Silver Streak still has moments that would make me cringe while watching it with my parents, the double entendres are on a superior level of cleverness that most of today’s comedies can only dream of.

There was one scene, however, that I found a bit unsettling. When George becomes a wanted man and is in desperate need of a disguise, Grover gives him the idea to cover his skin with shoe polish, put on a beanie, groove to some tunes from a portable music player, and make the security guards think he is a black man. Gene Wilder’s mannerisms reinforce the racial stereotypes that, in my opinion, taint many comedy films that were made in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s (one example being 1980’s Airplane). I recently stumbled across this question in a survey: “Can anything be made the subject of a joke? Or should some subjects never be joked about?” In the case of this scene, the question is specifically, “Can racial stereotypes be made the subject of a joke?” The safe answer is no. Never.

The more complicated answer is that it depends on the trustworthiness of the comedian. In my mind, Sacha Baron Cohen is a comedian who has broken his trust with the audience by producing films that are constantly derogatory against entire races and nationalities. When looking at Gene Wilder’s body of work, though, it’s hard to imagine any malevolent factors at play. It is clear his intentions are to unite rather than to tear apart. On his Wikipedia page (is it okay to use Wikipedia now that I’m out of college?) I found this: “In 1975, Wilder’s agent sent him a script for a film called Super Chief. Wilder accepted, but told the film’s producers that he thought the only person who could keep the film from being offensive was Richard Pryor. Pryor accepted the role in the film, which had been renamed Silver Streak.

Wilder’s collaboration with Pryor resulted in three more films. Their real-life friendship emanates from the screen and demonstrates how comedy has the ability to unite people of different backgrounds for a common cause…