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In the last year or so I’ve crossed the Atlantic several times on a certain airline, and owing to the limited selection of watchable new films available, I’ve seen a certain old movie several times. The fact that it’s Black History Month has caused me to do a bit of thinking about it – and also about a couple of more recent movies that I’ve also watched on planes lately.
The old movie in question is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, from 1967. Written by William Rose and directed by Stanley Kramer, it was a landmark work in its time. The story is simple. Joey Drayton (Katharine Houghton), the very privileged white daughter of the publisher (Spencer Tracy) of a major San Francisco newspaper and an art gallery owner (Katharine Hepburn), flies back home from a Hawaii vacation with Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), whom she has met there and whom she intends to wed.
She is white. He is black. Though Joey comports herself with extraordinary self-assurance, she has nothing much to recommend her, apart from the fact that she is the daughter of rich people and is cute and sparkly-eyed, though also quite annoying and haughty. Dr. Prentice, for his part, is handsome, charming, intelligent, wise, decent, honest, modest, and highly credentialed, and is the founder of an innovative new medical program that promises to save millions of lives in the heart of Africa.
The movie presents us – as it does her parents – with the question of whether we should accept that this silly white girl should lower herself to marrying this outrageously accomplished black doctor. I do not mean to mock this movie. It was an earnest attempt to address, and alter, white Americans’ racial attitudes, and it loaded the dice in order to strengthen its hand (to mix two gambling metaphors). The participation of Tracy and Hepburn in the film was for them less an acting assignment than a commitment to what they saw as a noble project. It was Tracy’s last movie – he died only days after shooting his last scene.
In a strange way, the film touches me deeply. I was a child when it was made. I lived under the social conditions that it addressed and that it sought to change. This is obviously part of the reason why I keep watching it over and over again. Even so, I can see how terribly contrived it is. Great art does not seek to change opinions in the way this movie does. In the final analysis it is a piece of outright propaganda, even though it is propaganda for a good cause.
Plus a fact, the film has its blind spots. Even as it challenges racism, it affirms class prejudice – apparently unconsciously. The white Drayton family are highly privileged people who are exceedingly accustomed to their privileges. The daughter orders around the family’s maid – a black woman (Isabel Sanford) who pretty much raised her – in a way that another film might invite us to find obnoxious but that this film simply considers natural. Indeed the film, rather than encouraging us to contemplate critically any aspect of the Draytons’ easy sense of privilege, wants us to admire them as pillars of American liberal virtue whose success is, presumably, a reward for that virtue. One of the film’s implicit arguments for accepting Poitier’s character as a suitable husband for Joey is that he has plainly ascended from his humble beginnings (his father is a retired mailman) into the Draytons’ own social class. He, too, has become accustomed to privilege. (The different ways in which he and his father pronounce the word “Hawaii” during a phone call – a neat, subtle touch in a movie full of heavy-handed, declamatory speeches – underscore the distance he has come from his roots.)
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