A young interracial couple’s engagement provokes reactionary parental disapproval. In 1967, this concept was a groundbreaker; in 2005, it’s just enough for light domestic farce. Critical types are polarized on the meaning of this change. They either mutter about how any creative culture that enables Ashton Kutcher to become a major star, let alone a Sidney Poitier stand-in, must be on the verge of total collapse; or they look on the bright side and declare the replacement a new benchmark of social progress.
Either position forces a reconciliation between Guess Who, which is among the biggest earners at the box-office in recent weeks, and its direct ancestor, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, which was nominated for ten Oscars (it won two: one for Katharine Hepburn’s performance and the other for William Rose’s screenplay) but has since become very unfashionable.
Given its release during a violent, rancorous time—the final year of Martin Luther King’s life, when interracial marriage was illegal in more than a dozen states—the movie shouldn’t be condemned for its polite reasonableness; it should be congratulated for its restraint.
As Stanley Kramer’s film has aged, critics have piled on the epithets, from “sanctimonious” all the way to “terrible.” Spike Lee famously denounced it as sappy white-liberal baloney and made Jungle Fever, in part, as a kind of corrective. In The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, David Thomson describes Kramer as “a hollow, pretentious man, too dull for art, too cautious for politics” and calls his movies “middlebrow and overemphatic; at worst, they are among the most tedious and dispiriting productions the American cinema has to offer.”
Well, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is earnest and hokey all right. It has sorely little to offer in the way of cinematic craftsmanship. But its truest currency, still very much of value, is the great dignity and charisma invested in the performances of Kate Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as the parents, and of course, Sidney Poitier as the surprise fiancé. Given its release during a violent, rancorous time—the final year of Martin Luther King’s life, when interracial marriage was illegal in more than a dozen states—the movie shouldn’t be condemned for its polite reasonableness; it should be congratulated for its restraint.
Matt Drayton (Tracy) wants the best for his daughter Joanna (Katharine Houghton), but even the handsome, highly credentialed Dr. Prentice (Poitier) doesn’t seem good enough. Now, why would that be? The movie examines the problem less mawkishly than you might remember. Consider this exchange between Drayton and his friend Mike, the Monsignor:
MATT. I wish I didn’t have the feeling that they’ll never make it. That the whole thing’s impossible.
MIKE. … Very interesting, indeed. And rather amusing, too, to see a broken-down old phony liberal come face to face with his principles. Of course, I always have believed that, in that fighting liberal façade, there must be some sort of reactionary bigot trying to get out.
MATT. Oh, go to hell, if you and your crowd are still preaching hell.
Abetted by a wily, more accepting wife who movingly tolerates his intolerance, Drayton gradually achieves the cathartic recognition that all he can do is stop being part of the problem.
Kramer’s movie, in which people speak to each other as adults, was serious about its subject but not conventionally moralizing—the Draytons aren’t rednecks, after all; they’re affluent, engaged urbanites: a newspaper publisher and a gallery owner. Nor was the movie really made for ordinary folks, as the director later claimed when under attack. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was meant to supply America’s aspiring Draytons with some fallible but honorable role models and to help them sleep at night. That’s allowed.
The big difference between the two movies, of course, is the colour reversal. Who knows what to make of it?
And it remains useful because, while race relations may have crawled toward improvement since 1967, the insomnia has worsened. No wonder the voice of American liberalism now seems more shrill and less adult. What other recent ambitious movies by, and for, white liberals have been made on this subject anyway? Warren Beatty’s indulgent satire, Bulworth, in which liberation from the exhausted loathing of canned rhetoric comes only from the total refusal to care what people think? A success, perhaps, if it was intended to show that ranting about the framing of American political discourse is not an effective way of reframing it. As for “message movies” in general, you’ll agree that last year’s big two were The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11, collectively suggesting that whatever the message, the approved means of delivery is prolonged flagellation.
Back to Guess Who, which tries as hard to be funny as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner tried to be decent. In both cases, the effort is commendable but the strain shows, and the latter movie seems weirdly frightened by the original’s aplomb. Kutcher, bless his heart, is not exactly the go-to guy for dignity in film, and his role here won’t let him forget it. Bernie Mac has what it takes, but whereas Tracy’s Drayton wrought true empathy from the agony of facing his own failings, Mac’s peacocky Percy Jones builds a distancing caricature from an apparent notion that poise is a sign of weakness. The plot demands he behave this way but doesn’t really explain it, preferring instead that we gather his motives from within the general dilemma of being a successful black husband and father in today’s world.
The big difference between the two movies, of course, is the colour reversal. Who knows what to make of it? Notwithstanding the white nationalist bloggers who actually find such race-reversed updates of older entertainments threatening (the forthcoming Honeymooners movie, Ving Rhames as the new Kojak on TV), these productions seem at best trivial and at worst, well, certainly more patronizing than Kramer’s movie ever was. What sort of benchmark is it, really, when we’ve only stocked our regurgitations of this dated stuff with black faces?
On balance, white liberal guilt is probably healthy for the still-young American republic, and it couldn’t possibly be any more unhealthy for movies than the diluting indifference routinely applied by their meddling overseers.
For those of us still naive enough to think movies can drive social change—and plenty of folks here in dreamy San Francisco, where Kramer’s movie is set, still are—Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner deserves another look.
Maisonneuve contributing editor Jonathan Kiefer writes about the arts for various publications in San Francisco, where he lives. One of his cats is named after Preston Sturges. Film Flâneur appears every second Friday.