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In the final analysis, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? is a lecture – a lecture delivered by Hollywood and directed at America. Matt Drayton may be nominally a newspaper publisher, but he’s still Spencer Tracy, film icon; and his wife is Katharine Hepburn, also a film icon. Their house, with its breathtaking view of San Francisco Bay, is the kind of luxurious residence to which the Hollywood filmmakers themselves are accustomed. Their relationship to their maid and to other members of the lower orders is very much the same as the relationship of the filmmakers to such people.
The filmmakers are, in the end, saying to us: “This is how people like us – the Hollywood elite – would deal with this situation. So should you.” The condescension is obvious. Perhaps less obvious is that, although the filmmakers obviously intend to do something positive for black people, the film isn’t really about Dr. Prentice or any of the other black characters – what it’s about, above all, is the Tracy character’s inner moral struggle over the idea of his daughter marrying a black man. The liberal Hollywood filmmakers wanted to make a “serious” movie about race, but what they made was a movie in which the major black character’s fate hinges on the conscience of an elderly white man – a man who is, practically speaking, a stand-in for the filmmakers themselves.
Things haven’t changed in Tinseltown – not so much as you might think, anyway. On the same flights on which I watched and re-watched Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, I saw The Blind Side and The Help. Both have been lavishly praised. Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for The Blind Side, and several actresses are nominated this year for The Help. Both films pull at the heartstrings, but in ways that one ultimately recognizes as cheap and manipulative. Bullock’s character is a well-to-do Memphis housewife who takes a promising young black football player from the wrong side of the tracks into her home and helps him to become an All-American. The Help is about a white Southern girl in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s, who, in defiance of the social codes of that time and place, interviews local black maids about their lives and turns the material into an explosive book about racial prejudice. The Blind Side is based on a true story; The Help has no basis in fact. Both are about the nobility of white people helping black people – and, implicitly, about the nobility of white people making movies about white people helping black people.
Which is not to criticize all movies about white people helping black people. To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the great motion pictures of all time. But The Blind Side and The Help are pedestrian pieces of work that derive whatever power they possess over audiences from the cheap uplift experienced by white viewers who enjoy identifying with the white do-gooders. The white girl in The Help writes a book about the lives of black maids. But the movie isn’t about their lives. It’s about her interest in their lives. The good liberals in Hollywood pretend they’re interested in those lives, but they’re not about to make a movie about them.
It’s odd. There are plenty of black stars nowadays who can carry a big-budget Hollywood picture. But whenever Hollywood decides to make a movie about race – an “issue” movie, a “problem” movie – the reflexive inclination of the good liberals in charge is still, all too often, to go for a story in which the whites are the heroes and the blacks are the supporting cast. This is Hollywood liberalism in a nutshell. Shame.
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