Beyond race: Experiencing ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ 50 years later

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In 1967, the civil rights movement was well underway in the United States. It had been emphasized as the nation’s foremost social movement for over a decade. The topic of race was at the forefront of people’s minds, as were interracial relationships. This would culminate in that year’s Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia.

That same year saw the release of Stanley Kramer’s comedy-drama film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” The film chronicles Joanna Drayton (Katharine Houghton), who brings her Black boyfriend Dr. John Prentice Jr. (Sidney Poitier) home to meet her parents, Matt (Spencer Tracy) and Christina (Katharine Hepburn) and announce their decision to marry. The setting — and stakes — of the film are compressed within one day, as John is set to fly to Geneva that night for his work, where Joanna is planning to later join him. Unbeknownst to Joanna, John informs Matt and Christina that he will not marry Joanna without their blessing, leaving them but one day to make up their minds about the marriage — and indicate the nation’s own direction on the topic.

In 2017, exactly 50 years after its release, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was screened at AMC Van Ness 14 in San Francisco. The film presents the topic of interracial marriage as something to be discussed, even when some Americans may believe that the nation has moved past the issue today.

Joanna does not inform her parents ahead of time of her boyfriend’s race, confident in her parents’ liberal views. Yet, despite their proclaimed beliefs in equality, her parents find themselves unable to comes to terms with the idea of their white daughter marrying a Black man, presenting the issue of coming face to face with the values one preaches. In today’s world, race relations have moved forward significantly, with social movements increasing in momentum and with more people pushing for true equality and representation. Yet interracial relationships are still a topic of conversation whether it is 1967 or 2017.

In honor of the 50 years that have passed since Loving v. Virginia, Vice News spoke to a group of interracial couples about how their relationships are treated by the modern world. The couples discussed shared experiences, ranging from receiving stares when walking together in public spaces to never having met their spouse’s parents. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” depicts the looks of confusion and contempt received by its central interracial couple. This prejudiced behavior is still occuring half a century later.

Despite his initial admiration and respect of John as a person and doctor, Matt becomes hesitant when he considers the union of John and his daughter — the film thus presents the idea of respecting an abstract concept of social justice but failing to enact it in one’s own life. Matt says John must think about Joanna’s “best interest,” bringing up all of the practical reasons for them to not get married, including social condemnation and what life will be like for their future children.

Interracial relationships still drive plots in contemporary films, as in one of the most successful and critically acclaimed films of the year, Jordan Peele’s “Get Out.” “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” presents an optimistic view on the future of interracial marriages within society, with a happy ending to the end of this comedic film. “Get Out,” however, offers a different stance — in fact, quite the opposite. But despite the stark differences, “Get Out” presents a situation that is not so different from that of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”: meeting the white “liberal” parents and bringing outsiders into the relationship.

In a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, writer Iman Amrani depicts her experience watching “Get Out” having grown up in an interracial household. Amrani writes of the temptation to watch a film in which “love conquers all,” such as “Guess Who’s Coming Dinner,” but she knows life is never quite as simple as the classic film portrays it. The conversely cynical ending of “Get Out” may not be exactly manifested in reality, but it feels that way to many of its viewers of color — an indication of its intended audience.

In “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner,” John avoids telling his parents that his new girlfriend is white. Once his parents John Sr. (Roy E. Glenn) and Mary (Beah Richards) meet her at the airport, the same debate begins again. This aspect of the plot is not necessarily expected by the film’s intended majority-white audience. The Black parents’ disapproval is not the basis for the plot, but rather an added complication. Because white people are the ones enacting prejudice, Black people are expected to be more progressive.

In a loose remake of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” entitled “Guess Who,” the roles are reversed, with a Black woman (Zoe Saldana) taking home her white boyfriend (Ashton Kutcher), without telling her family ahead of time that he isn’t Black. This role reversal emphasizes the complexity of both sides of the interracial couple debate, indicating its intended reception by audiences other than white people.

In “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” though Matt and John Sr. both disapprove of the marriage, John Sr. does not hold the same power of influence. Matt alone possesses the final say; John Sr. can only express his opinions, which hold no real weight. Here, the film goes against its message of racial equality, as all of the real power is held by the white man. The power of the white man is so ingrained in history and society that it bleeds into social movements that have nothing do with white men at all.

The plot of “Who’s Coming to Dinner” is indisputably about race, but within this examination of racial division, the topic of gender inequality becomes apparent. Reflective of society, there is never just one social issue to be addressed.

Feminism has grown immensely since the 1960s, as demonstrated by “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” It has become a much more visible movement, as actualized by the Women’s March earlier this year. It has become a more inclusive movement as well, as early feminism was by and large only directed toward white women. “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is centered around a privileged white woman, whereas the Black women depicted include Mary — one of the parent figures, and thus a part of the conflict — and Tillie, the family’s maid (Isabel Sanford). The disparity between women of different races here is clear. The white woman is the center for the plot, while the Black woman is the family’s maid whose opinions on the matter are disregarded.

Gender and race are intricately interwoven in this plot; both come to a head in the concluding scene of the film. Having come to a full realization of how much John and Joanna love each other, Matt gives his blessing. In his speech, there is a moment in which Joanna tries to speak up and Matt says it’s the last time he will be able to tell her what to do, promptly ordering her to “shut up.” This small moment is representative of the gender disparity interlaced with the plot.

Despite the underlying issues within the subject of race, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” provides insight into the progress being made on the subject of race in a society that was making significant headway at the time of its release. It finds relevance in today’s world, seeing as race is still just as topical, with interracial relationships still sparking discussions.

Yet one of the most interesting aspects of the film’s racial topic is its implications for gender equality, an issue that has only grown in relevance and now finds itself at the forefront of society, with so many women fighting to reach true and valid equality next to men. Its handling of this topic can be debated, but regardless, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” sparks conversations on more than one level.

Contact Nikki Munoz at [email protected].