The James Garner con man is an archetype unto itself. Affable, flintly, always working a scheme while working just as hard to avoid physical confrontation. Garner mostly plied his trade in Westerns and Film Noirs (or their stylistic descendants), self contained worlds with little bearing on our reality. The consequences of the gunfights, car chases, duels, and card games didn’t even carry over into subsequent episodes.
Maverick and Jim Rockford made a point of avoiding minefields like American race relations. Not for bad reason, either. Race and slavery remain an enormously complicated topic even in the modern day. In the tail of the civil rights era they were at a boiling point. Hollywood at least had the courage to address it, releasing a glut of films that marked a shift in racial dynamics. The whole tone shifted to penance, actively trying to atone for the black stereotype Hollywood helped perpetuate. Sidney Poitier addressed the issue in films both highbrow and lowbrow, while other black actors were finding themselves cast as reliable members of the team instead of comic relief. There was a hamminess and awkwardness that suffused all these pictures, so self aware of their importance in the social debate of their day that even the best of them don’t survive well as pure entertainment.
But even in this era of bold strokes, few dared make a “Southern” set amongst and focusing on slave culture. Angering the South carried with it the very real threat of financial repercussions for the current feature and a stigma that could follow the filmmakers throughout their career.
In Skin Game the trademark James Garner character goes by the name of Quincy. His con involves selling his partner Jason (Louis Gossett Jr.) to gullible whites across the slave states, splitting the money after a rescue operation. It’s a lucrative trade, but the pair are running out of territory. They started in Maryland and are crossing into Kansas by the start of the film. So far the scam worked without a hitch, but a close call with a unscrupulous slave trader (Ed Asner) scares Jason out of the game. Their next job will be their last.
Skin Game lays the sauce on thick. The acting is so broad as to almost veer into Blazing Saddles, but such is the power of James Garner that this is when the film is at it’s best. He has such a infectious self-awareness that acts as a perfect contrast to the utter commitment of his one-dimensional co-stars. This is a film where John Brown could charge in unannounced, in full beard and shouting his biblical rhetoric, yet still stay grounded around Garner.
Gosset too works best when over-playing. Jason’s slave persona is so over the top that the other slaves read him as a fraud. His performance is not so much rooted in slavery as the Amos and Andy minstrelsy peddled by the early 20th century American media.
Django Unchained makes for an interesting comparison. Both films parry the full weight of their context by playing it broad. Both land on the same basic plot points: the slave bride that must be saved; the early run in with the slave traders; the layers of deceit needed to get an audience with the plantation owners. Both feature an older white with a very spotty moral code, yet is still repulsed by the institution of slavery. Unlike Django’s “Dr. King Schultz”, violence isn’t much of an option for Quincey Drew. He is almost entirely reliant on his hustling. He only draws a gun once and then only as a threat.
I get the sense that structuring “Skin Game” around that trademarked Garner persona (and so much so that the first hour could almost pass for a regular episode of Maverick) acted like a trojan horse for the final third of the film. Sequences about slave culture, African identity, and plantation life all fly by briefly and gets capped off with a brutal sequence of free/slave, white/black role reversal. Skin Game has a lot it wants to say but only enough feet of film to work with. James Garner was famously committed to the cause of civil rights, helping to organize the March on Washington and actively supporting liberal candidates and social justice throughout his life. He devotes an awful lot to this role, being at the point in his career where he could let any of the lesser actors get muddied and bloodied in his stead. Garner enthusiastically submits himself to a final degradation that while didn’t hold the cultural weight of Sidney Poitier slapping a plantation owner in “The Heat of the Night”, probably held just as great of a personal significance. In a way Garner’s greedy in including the sequence.