You may be in for the greatest shock of your young life.
Just because Stanley Kramer‘s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a product of its time doesn’t mean it’s any less relevant fifty years later. It was only four or so years ago that a friend and his wife were looking to sell their home when their real estate agent took a phone call and said how she was touring a “nice interracial couple” as if the descriptor was somehow crucial to an act that she completes multiple times a day. Switch race with religion, ethnicity, sexuality, or even politics and any number of this formula’s iterations could be brought to life. In 1967, however, race was the big taboo that screenwriter William Rose grabbed. Considering seventeen states stilled outlawed interracial marriages at the time, you couldn’t blame him.
Does it feel like it’s proselytizing a bit today? Sure. It’s an agenda movie regardless of whether its agenda shouldn’t need to exist in a perfect world. That’s exactly why Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) is written to be unassailable too. If there can be no reason why his fiancé Joanna (Katharine Houghton) shouldn’t marry him in her parents’ (Spencer Tracy‘s Matt and Katharine Hepburn‘s Christina Drayton) eyes besides the color of his skin, the film can drop all pretenses and focus solely upon that fact. And because the filmmakers know that racists aren’t going to magically become tolerant because they watched a movie, they target liberal progressives instead. Because championing equality as a white family and accepting the risks that come with living it aren’t the same.
The film is at its best when leaning into this common hypocrisy. The Draytons have no issue with a Black man like John being a doctor. They have no issue with him coming over to their house to converse and break bread. The moment they realize he’s there as Joanna’s fiancé rather than an intellectual, however, is when they must confront their own inherent prejudices. They ask each other if they ever thought this was a possibility and answer with a resounding “No” before finally thinking it through. They taught her that a Black person can and should do everything a white person can and nowhere in that lesson did they say, “But that doesn’t erase the fact that segregation in love isn’t still demanded under this roof.”
It’s why the juxtaposition of the Draytons’ reaction to the news and that of family friend Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway) is so refreshingly honest. Context aside (having the Catholic priest be instantly accepting while the non-religious folks stand mouths agape is doing a lot of heavy lifting considering the state of Evangelicals currently being the least tolerant group of people in this country), the purity of Ryan coming up to Joanna and John with outstretched hand and ear-to-ear smile before deciphering, “Oh, you must be the ‘problem’.” is hilarious. Hearing him joke with Matt latter about always knowing a bigot was trying to escape his progressive façade is too. This is a wealthy family that holds image above everything. But image isn’t always truth. Acceptance doesn’t guarantee practice.
For better or worse, that perspective does ultimately make Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner a very white movie. It’s not about John and Joanna getting married. It’s about white liberals acknowledging the ingrained dishonesty of their actions by way of existing within a nation built upon the sort of systemic racism that grants them the power to speak about equality without ever having to actually do anything to enforce it. That lens unfortunately does a disservice to the Black characters insofar as making the Draytons’ housekeeper Tillie (Isabel Sanford) say Black people should know their place and not “ascend beyond it” and John’s father (Roy Glenn) tell his son that he’s making the first mistake of his life. Those characterizations are distractions. They exist to normalize Matt’s hesitation.
So, while the premise itself isn’t dated—some could say America in 2022 has reverted further than the 1960s where it comes to race relations and misogyny—the fact that it was made by and for white people is. There’s an intrinsic sense of back-patting that comes off as cringeworthy because of this. It almost took me out of the movie too because it started to become too focused on wanting to absolve the past generation for its desire to control the current one (itself an interesting notion considering John is almost as close to Joanna’s parents’ age as he is to hers). Thankfully, a wonderful scene between Poitier and Glenn, wherein the former calls the latter out for daring to say he’s “owed,” arrives to save things.
There are many great moments from Hepburn verbally eviscerating her employee (Virginia Christine‘s Hilary St. George) with surgical precision (boy does she earn that Oscar) to Beah Richards accurately dissecting older men’s penchant to replace romance with conservative pragmatism, but none are better than Poitier giving breath to the death-bed stranglehold that aging generations wield upon the youth. When John tells his father that it’s he who’s owed him the moment he brought him into this world is powerful enough to get people out of their seat cheering. Because that’s what’s really going on here. This idea that Joanna and John need their parents’ blessing is relevant (she wants them in her life as much as him), but it’s also antiquated and solely about control like so much else.
Look at the current climate with overwhelming majorities of our citizenry calling for abortion rights, gay rights, civil rights, etc. only to have ancient Senators who’ve spent decades accruing wealth from a post meant to serve that citizenry vote against them all. Making this film today demands that Joanna and John confront their parents to say the marriage is happening regardless of their inclusion and that the latter must prove they are okay with it in order for the former to grant the blessing necessary to let them remain a part of their lives. That’s not to say Tracy’s climactic speech isn’t great. It is. It’s merely one more example of parental control via what’s subsequently been revealed to be superficial. If love can’t trump all, it’s not real.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.