Classics Corner: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

29 09 2011

Much of the U.S. racial history that I learned as a kid in school could be summed up with this sentence: “Then Martin Luther King had a dream, he made the civil rights movement happen, and suddenly everyone could go to school together and racism wasn’t a problem anymore.”

There’s so much wrong with that statement, but I’ll start out by pointing out that racial tensions can never be covered up, erased, or eradicated; they can only be soothed and toned down to the point that they no longer present a basis for discrimination.  And the tensions cannot be controlled by the government; they can play a significant role in the process, but racial tensions have to be fixed by society because that’s the place from where they were derived in the first place.  The Civil Rights Act and Brown v. Board of Education were important steps on the way to deinstitutionalizing racism, but they did not magically make the problem disappear.

It’s a quick, easy pat on the back to say that since there was once a time when segregation in schools existed, we are a progressive and equal society.  The fact is, however, that we are not a society void of discrimination.  It still exists.  Whether it’s directed towards homosexuals, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Christians, Muslims, Jews – it is still out there, and it’s still a big problem.

Not to digress too much, but that’s why I think “The Help” was such an important discussion piece over the summer.  By showing us how backwards the Southern attitudes towards their African-American maids were, dehumanizing them to the point that they needed separate toilets, it reminded us of how horrible discrimination is.  If you really wanted to meditate on the late summer breakout hit,  you could think about how much discrimination still exists in our society (positive or negative) on the basis of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or just about any other categorical distinction you can make.

So now to the main point of discussion, the 1967 film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?”  Stanley Kramer’s film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards in a legendary year for cinema, winning a third Best Actress trophy for Katharine Hepburn and another trophy for Best Original Screenplay.  The film deals with one question: is it actually acceptable for Joey, an upper-class white woman (Katharine Houghton), to marry John Prentice, a black man (Sidney Poitier) even if he is extremely well-off and accomplished?

The question is directed at three groups.  The first is Joey’s parents, well-off California liberals Christina (Hepburn) and Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy in his final film). The issue tests how committed they are to their ideals by muddling their interests in with the final product.  The second is the other African-Americans in the film, John’s parents and the Drayton’s maid Tillie.  They seem to doubt the sincerity of the gesture, wondering if the move is motivated by power rather than love.

And the third group is us, the audience, be it in 1967 or 2011 or 2100.  Some considered it dated even upon release, according to The New York Times‘ Frank Rich.  “What couple would not want him as a son-in-law,” he asks upon restating John’s impressive résumé.  Some critics have said that he was too white and have thus dulled the movie’s impact.  But as Rich said, “[W]hat’s most startling about this archaic film is the sole element in it that proves inadvertently contemporary. Faced with a black man in the mold of the Poitier character — one who appears ‘so calm’ and without ‘tensions’ — white liberals can make utter fools of themselves. When Joe Biden spoke of Obama being ‘clean’ and ‘articulate,’ he might have been recycling Spencer Tracy’s lines of 41 years ago.”

We can pretend that by electing a black President, we’ve purged ourselves of a long history and assuaged our guilt (an explanation that many have proffered now that his approval rating hovers in the low 40% range), but movies like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” remind us never to stop questioning our values.  Taking place after the passage of civil rights legislation, I can assume many people would have liked to put their feet up and pretend equality had been achieved.

Sure, its script may not have much to offer, the music may be brutal, and it lingers for too long.  But amidst all of that, there are numerous challenges to think about our notions of equality that society needs to continue to ponder on if we ever intend to keep moving forwards.