Sidney Poitier starred in some of the most iconic films of his generation: think To Sir, With Love and In The Heat Of The Night, and you understand immediately how as an actor he was at the forefront of the conversations around race, economics, and sexuality that caused so much foment in the late 1960s – and which continue to do so today.
Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner stands squarely in this oeuvre of radical filmmaking – made all the more impactful because it starred two of the legends of Hollywood’s “golden years” (Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy) alongside Poitier; and because it was set in a distinctly upper middle class milieu. In other words, this wasn’t a film about racist rednecks or ignorant working class types – it was a film about racist middle class “progressives” hung on their virtue signalling petards.
Which, in the wake of the “Trump revolution” makes it as relevant a film today as when it was made in 1967.
The plot of the film is simple enough: the daughter of two wealthy, white liberal parents returns home from a holiday in Hawaii, bringing with her a man she has met while away, and with whom she has fallen in love. Simple enough, except the man turns out to be black, a fact that confronts the parents – who like to think of themselves as the epitome of socially progressive Democrats – with their own prejudice. At first, they try and pretend that they are concerned for the welfare of the young couple, and the hostility they will face on the matter of inter-race relationships (bearing in mind that in many US States at the time, such relationships were actually illegal). All too soon, however, it is shown that what really disturbs them is the fact that their lovely young white daughter wants to marry a talented, intelligent, black man.
There’s a terrific scene in which the mother (Hepburn) and the father (Tracy) are contemplating the situation. Hepburn laughs wryly and says something to the effect of: “We raised our daughter not to be prejudiced, to not see any difference between black people and white. We taught her that folks who do are sometimes hateful, mostly ignorant, but always wrong. We just forgot to tell her not to fall in love with a negro.”
Of course, the difference between their pretensions and their actual attitudes is illustrated by the fact that they have a black cook/housekeeper. But it is in this character that we also get to see another dimension to prejudice. Because of all the people you would expect to be on the young black man’s side, it would be the black housekeeper; and yet she is immediately hostile to him, and sustains that hostility throughout the film. Indeed, there’s a brilliant scene in which she gives him a piece of her mind, informing him that she knows what his “game” is: that he is some “smooth talking” hustler looking to exploit a vulnerable and naive young woman in order to get “above himself”. Her prejudice is the prejudice of learned helplessness, of accepting that there is a “natural order” to existence and that anyone who breaks the conventions of that order must be immediately “pulled into line”.
The young couple are played by Poitier and Katherine Houghton (Hepburn’s niece). And they, too, have their failings. The daughter is to some extent quite self-involved, acting on impulse without consideration for the feelings of others, and simply expecting that they will fall in line with her plans. And Poitier, while pretending to be mindful of the sensitivities of the situation, in fact backs Hepburn and Tracy into a corner by delivering a rather self-serving ultimatum. In exploring all these foibles, the film is not being nihilistic or cynical; on the contrary, it is simply reflecting on the fact that prejudice is about more than just race bigotry – it is the assumption that other people will respond in certain ways based on how we have defined who they are.
And the counterpoint that illustrates this principle occurs in the figure of the old Irish Monsignor, a long-time friend of the daughter’s family. You would expect this figure to be an unreconstructed racist; afterall, the Irish in America were noted for their hostility to African-Americans, a hostility extending back to the so-called “draft riots” during the American Civil War, when Irish mobs in New York lynched blacks en masse. But it is the Monsignor who unhesitatingly and unconditionally accepts and welcomes the young couple’s relationship, overthrowing the ancient stereotype; because, of course, it would have been both a stereotype and racist to have assumed he would be racist on account of being Irish.
The denouement is both powerful and poignant, characterised by Tracy’s delivery of one of the most brilliant soliloquys in film history (and the fact that filming itself was completed only 17 days before Tracy’s death). There is little wonder that this film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards; what is inconceivable is that it didn’t win all 10 – unlike, say, that piece of melodramatic tripe that was Titanic. In the end, a “happy ending” is achieved – but lurking beneath this outcome are all the difficulties and troubles that, having been expressed through prejudicial angst, are nonetheless real and await the young couple in their life ahead.
One of the truly great films of the 20th century, as startling, confronting, and relevant today as it was when it was first made.
(c) Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.