White Movie Heroes and Black Supporting Casts

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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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  • vlondo

    Mr Bawer says the film challenges racism. l have no idea what challenging racism means however why would anyone want to breed children that dont resemble themselves – because that is what usually occurs when a White "couples" with a Black – the children are usually Black. Or perhaps thats the whole idea, if the Whites get with the Blacks then there wont be any more Whites – because (obviously) the Whites are the problem, arent they?

    • Danny

      And if human beings get with other human beings, maybe then there won't be any more of you. Think about it.

    • Mike

      Really? Inter-racial marriage is for the express purpose of the extinction of white people? Stop being so paranoid.

      • vlondo

        In the US White babies now constitute less than 50% of all babies being born. You go from 90% down to 80% down to 70% down to 60% and now its under 50%. Whether l'm paranoid or not doesnt change demographic reality. Soon White babies will constitute 40% of all babies being born.
        People who admire the Nazis dalliance with SOCIAL ENGINEERING will get a big kick out of the constantly declining number of Whites. That the Whites are declining numerically is a direct consequence of government policy, its not some random accident – its a government sanctioned third world invasion thats turning what was previously a White majority country into a White minority country. l call it White genocide. You'll really get a kick out of affirmative action programs and the entrenched anti-White government policies when Whites are a minority – oh boy l cant wait! Anyone who imagines these policies and programs will be dropped when the Whites obtain minority status has rocks in their head. Thats when the persecution of Whites will increase 100 fold.

  • StephenD

    Sometimes a movie is…just a movie. But I get the point. "The Help" is "Pedestrian" as you say compared to "To Kill a Mocking Bird."
    Then again, when we melt all into a cauldron rather than enjoy the subtle differences say of a stew; instead of lifting any individual up we end by bringing everyone to the lowest common denominator. This is probably the best you can hope for with such mental midgets running the show. They may as well end each such "piece" of work with the song "We are the World."

  • tagalog

    The reason why Hollywood production staffs can't make movies in which the lives, mores, personalities, and character of the black characters are not explored in any insightful way is that Hollywood production staffs are overwhelmingly composed of white people who have nothing significant to do with black people, don't understand black people, and hence see the black characters in their movies as either black white people or stand-ins for Tupac Shakur.

    Hollywood would NEVER, under present circumstances, see its way to portray the average black family, which is typically church-going Christian, typically moralistic, typically focused on conventional social mores, and not living the kind of lives that white Hollywood types pay attention to.

    When Guess Who's Coming to Dinner first was released, one of the most cogent critiques of it was that the Sidney Poitier character was the kind of person most parents would give their right arms to have marrying their daughter, so that Spencer Tracy's and Katherine Hepburn's characters' quandary seemed a bit suspicious.

    • Guest

      Agree completely!!! Watched this film on TV many, many years ago with my very ordinary parents who saw Tracy and Hepburn as self-regarding phonies who couldn't even see their own hypocrisy. The irony of it. The Tracy/Hepburns of the world looked down on people like my parents.

    • Questions

      Baloney. Try the following:

      "The Pursuit of Happyness"
      "Eve's Bayou"
      "The Preacher's Wife"
      "The Color People
      "Antwone Fisher"

      That's a very partial list.

      • Questions

        Make that "The Color Purple." My point still stands.

  • Danny

    Whites "getting with" non-whites will inevitably lead to just more "sub-groups". Which I'm sure will suit you since you'll have even more sub-groups to hate and accuse of white genocide.

  • samsgran1948

    The same thing happened with the movie about the Navajo codetalkers in World War II — Windtalkers. The true story of the code talkers could have written itself. But, no: Hollywood had to make it about the white officer (Nicholas Cage) who was assigned to watch over them and kill them if it looked like any of them would be captured by the Japanese. The code talkers themselves were background noise supporting Cage's character.

  • clarespark

    Excellent piece. I haven't thought about the few black male stars and their archetypes, maybe superheroes or tricksters or silly minstrels (Morgan Freeman, Denzel, Eddie Murphy, Tracy Morgan). But in the case of Whitney Houston, consider whether her story is being told along the lines of the tragic mulatto. I wrote about that here: http://clarespark.com/2012/02/13/whitneys-spectac…. In my limited contact with the rich, few care about the help, whatever their "racial" origins.

  • Ray Olson

    Fine posting, Bruce, about a situation I had forgotten, more because it is one of the reasons I seldom see Hollywood films made later than, oh, 1964, than that I wasn't aware of it. Guess Who's is, by my lights, a truly horrid film, phony through-and-through and visually ugly, to boot. You have my astonished respect for enduring more than half a viewing of it. My congratulations, too, for writing a piece that evoked responses that, with one exception, provoked thoughtful and respectable responses.

  • kblink45

    This article is generally correct regarding movies, but what about tv? Why was The Cosby Show such a phenomenon? How about all of the Disney series that center on a black family. My daughters love them (the little race traitors).

    This article would have been stronger had it painted with a slightly narrower brush. It is not that all movies marginalize their black characters, just the ones that seek to make a point or to give the director absolution. The author Shelby Steele explained this type of phenomenon in The Content of Our Character and other writings.

  • mrbean

    The NAACP wants affirmative action for Blacks (read quotas) in Hollywood. Hollywood's failure to include and promote blacks affects its programming decisions, say the protesters. More minorities, more "diverse" programming sensitive to the needs and desires of minorities. Do the media "exclude" blacks? If media includes all forms of entertainment—such as music —blacks excel. Rap music is a major moneymaker, and other black recording artists routinely score on the top-40 playlists. There are "black-themed" television shows, black daytime talk show hosts, black judge shows, blacks pushing products on infomercials, as well as many black characters in situation comedies and dramas. Roughly 12 percent of film and movie jobs go to blacks. Black directors get about five percent of the jobs, up dramatically from ten years ago. And blacks account for nearly 12 percent of all roles in commercials. The NAACP are racists and hate white people as as well.

  • Cliffy J

    Fine column about the Hollywood liberal mindset. But the movie (which was released in 1967) does not support today's Leftist agenda that without the massive social safety net and affirmative action no one can get anywhere in America. The Sidney Potier character, son of a mail carrier became a prominent MD based on his hard work, focus and skill, no mention of affirmative action. It also showed the model of an an intact family of a married father and mother together. Ironically, the movie came out around the beginning of the LBJ "Great Society" which has been so destructive to Black society and has the brought on the culture of entitlement that has been so destructive.

  • Chris C

    This makes me think of two things: the movie “The Last Samurai” (which was supposed to be Ken Watanabe’s character, not Tom Cruise’s) and a joke from Dave Chapelle’s show during a “Negrodamus” sketch: he talks about The Last Samurai, The Mexican, then says they should make a movie called “The Last N**ga on Earth” stating Tom Hanks lol