'Guess Who's Coming To Dinner' Was A Racial Reality Check
Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Houghton and Katharine Hepburn depicted on the poster for 'Guess Who's Coming To Dinner.' Source: IMDB.
In Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, Sidney Poitier plays John, a black man meeting his white fiancee's parents, who are played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. The movie was released in December 1967; the decade had seen some civil right victories but prejudice was still widespread. In fact, just six months before the film's premiere, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws all state against interracial marriage in the case Loving v. Virginia. Virginia was one of 16 states that still had anti-miscegenation laws on its books in 1967.
For all the progress the country had made in race relations, there was still a question as to whether the U.S. -- specifically the white liberals who'd talked such a good game about equality -- was ready for the changes that had happened. That's the main idea at work in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner.
'Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?' Is A Comedy
In The Heat Of The Night, Poitier's previous film, had been a tense drama about overt racism. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was quite different. Hepburn and Tracy played Matt and Christina Drayton, liberals who were dedicated to the cause of racial equality, and had raised their daughter Joanna (Katharine Houghton) to treat all humans fairly. It was one thing to speak about these things in the abstract -- how do you the high-minded principles hold up when your daughter declares she plans to enter into an interracial marriage?
While the movie deals with the question, it does so in a mostly humorous way. For instance, there is some classic movie confusion when Joanna invites John's parents over for dinner, without telling them that she and her parents are white. John then has to admit that he hasn't told his own parents he intends to marry a white woman, revealing that black Americans, too, could have their reservations about interracial marriage. A particularly surprising reaction comes from Tillie, the Drayton's maid, who warns Joanna that John is trying to use her to raise his status in society.
The general storyline, of a child who has fallen in love with and intends to marry someone who is different (poor, or from a rival family, or from the wrong side of the tracks), is an old one that has made for many comedies over the years -- in this case, the difference happened to be one of the hot-button issues of the day.
The Legal Battle Before The Film
In Virginia, the Act to Preserve Racial Integrity, enacted in 1924, made interracial marriage punishable by one to five years in a state penitentiary. Going into the '50s, more than half of the states had such anti-miscegenation laws on their books.
In 1958, Richard Loving, a white construction worker, married Mildred Jeter, a woman of mixed African and Native American ancestry, in Washington, D.C., where interracial marriage was legal. The couple returned to Virginia, were arrested, indicted, and tried for the felony offense. They were found guilty but the judge suspended the sentence on the condition that the couple did not return to Virginia together for 25 years.
They moved to Washington, D.C., but when they wanted to return to Virginia, they filed a lawsuit that inevitably made its way to the Supreme Court. On June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court found Virginia’s laws violated the 14th Amendment and the laws against interracial marriage were struck down in 16 states. In 2000, Alabama was the last state to remove its anti-miscegenation statute.
The Film's Reception
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a huge financial success, despite the fact that some theaters in the south wouldn't screen it. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, winning two. But the movie had its flaws -- for instance, some claimed that Sydney Poitier’s character, John Prentiss, was too perfect. He was, after all a doctor and an assistant director at the World Health Organization; he is also willing to end the engagement if Joanna's parents don't agree to it. Others praised the conception of John as a rare case of a black male character who was fully developed in a positive light.
Prominent reviewer Roger Schickel felt the film was making an unnecessary statement, writing:
Where to begin discussing the ineptitude with which the nightmare is realized on screen … Kramer is earnestly preaching away on matters that have long since ceased to be true issues.
How Did Americans Feel About Interracial Marriage In 1967?
Although the Supreme Court had abolished anti-miscegenation laws, the country wasn't necessarily on board with the changes. The research firm Gallup has asked Americans whether they approve of interracial marriage since 1958 -- in the first year of the survey, approval stood at 4%, and in 1968 that figure had risen to just 20%. (In 2013, it was at 87%.)
Katharine Houghton takes issue with criticism that the movie was addressing a problem that had been solved. "I think the film really was a kind of a thunderbolt,” she told the Associated Press. “A lot of very chic critics today say, ‘Oh, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was way behind the times. All those problems were already solved and we didn’t need a movie like that.’ I think we did need a movie like that.”
Critics Praised The Film's Handling Of A Delicate Subject
Many critics felt the film was well made and accomplished its mission of addressing the subject without alienating audiences. Roger Ebert wrote:
Yes, there are serious faults in Stanley Kramer's "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," but they are overcome by the virtues of this delightfully old-fashioned film. It would be easy to tear the plot to shreds and catch Kramer in the act of copping out. But why? On its own terms, this film is a joy to see, an evening of superb entertainment.
The Film Was Important, But Might Not Have Had Much Effect
The movie pulled the interesting trick of addressing an important subject without sounding a rallying cry. Discussing its legacy with Larry King in 2003, Houghton said, "I don't think it did a thing for civil rights."
But I think that anybody who's ever been involved in an interracial marriage of any sort, or even a gay relationship, any kind of relationship that's not approved of, that movie became metaphor for those kinds of situations. ... It was a breakthrough in that regard. But I think it was a movie mainly for white people.
Joanna Was The Character With The Most To Complain About
Interestingly, the greatest criticism of Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, particularly in hindsight, is a feminist one -- Houghton's character herself has almost no personality. Her parents are a newspaper editor and an art gallery owner, and her intended is a doctor and professor. Joanna, though, is a college student who has very little to say.
"I thought it was terrible that my character never had anything to say for herself of a political nature," Houghton told King. She revealed that there was a scene in which her character confronted her father (Spencer Tracy).
I talk to Spencer and I say -- I tell it really like it is. I really lay it on the table for him. And I got to say wonderful, wonderful things, all the things that I had been dying to say through the whole film.
Director Stanley Kramer told Houghton at the time of shooting that the scene might not make the final cut.
And I said, What are you talking about? It's the only chance that I have of making my character intelligent enough for a character like Sidney Poitier to fall in love with. Otherwise he's just falling in love with a Pollyanna idiot. You have to make the audience believe that he would be attracted to me. And he said, My dear child, you do not understand the American public.
Kramer felt that Houghton's character needed to be "a symbol of youth and loveliness and hope and so on," rather than a fully realized person. Houghton feels this choice was reflective of Kramer's ultimate goal, which was to make a movie that addressed a sensitive issue, but was ultimately a piece of friendly entertainment, not a shouted demand for a more just society. While the movie was important, she said, "I think the fact that my character didn't appear to have a brain in her head was sort of an indication of the level of it."
Tags: Civil Rights | Katharine Hepburn | Katharine Houghton | Movies In The 1960s | Race | Sidney Poitier | Spencer Tracy | Guess Whos Coming To Dinner
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