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.

Random Factoid #482

22 11 2010

Welcome back to the random factoid column, which I should really just rename “Dumb Stuff Jessica Alba Says.”  As you may remember, she made the news last week for Elle interview in which she claimed that good actors never use the script.  Well, the rest of the interview was published, and now the whole world is left to wonder why she can’t just shut her trap.

In the interview, she also went after directors, particularly “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” director Tim Story.  Here’s an excerpt of the garbage spewing out of her mouth on this topic:

“[Story said] ‘It looks too real. It looks too painful. Can you be prettier when you cry? Cry pretty, Jessica.’ He was like, ‘Don’t do that thing with your face. Just make it flat. We can CGI the tears in.’ And I’m like, But there’s no connection to a human being. And then it all got me thinking: Am I not good enough? Are my instincts and my emotions not good enough? Do people hate them so much that they don’t want me to be a person? Am I not allowed to be a person in my work? And so I just said, ‘F**k it. I don’t care about this business anymore.'”

Right, I forgot that Jessica Alba was a three-time Academy Award winning actress who needed virtually no direction!  Oh, wait, that’s Katharine Hepburn, sorry for the mental snafu.

Alba claims that this role made her want to quit acting altogether.  Guys, let’s be honest, we don’t watch a Jessica Alba movie to see powerful acting; we watch it to see Jessica Alba looking pretty.  So if she just resigned herself to modeling, she wouldn’t be breaking any of our hearts.