I like it when a movie doesn’t assume that I’m stupid. I like it even better when a film gives me a collection of characters that are smart. Watching dumb people in crisis doesn’t do anything for me. Watching smart people working out a problem is inherently more interesting. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a film that gives me a lot of what I’m looking for in that respect. It wouldn’t have been that difficult to make a film about racism in 1967; in fact, all three of Sidney Poitier’s films from that year have a touch of racism in the plot. I like In the Heat of the Night for the smart decision to make the racism a two-way street. I like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner for its ability to identify racism where we don’t expect it.
This is a film that has, admittedly, aged poorly. What was a hot-button issue the year that I was born is something that is socially acceptable in all but the most backwards parts of this country and the civilized world. The racism we’re dealing with here is not the violence prevalent in so many films of this subject, but the much more nuanced topic of interracial relationships. In fact, that’s the whole plot. Here it is in a nutshell: lily-white Joey Drayton (Katharine Houghton) brings home John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) to meet her parents and tell them that they are engaged. And, of course, John Prentice is black.
It would be easy to make this a situation where Matt (Spencer Tracy) and Christina Drayton (Katharine Hepburn) are obvious bigots, but the film is smarter than that. No, they are liberal parents who tell us early in the film that they raised their daughter not to think that people of a different skin color were somehow different or lower. And we also find out in the first half hour that John Prentice is a wildly successful doctor, having graduated from a prestigious school and currently having a high-prestige job at the World Health Organization. The only possible objections to the marriage are the very short courtship (10 days) and Prentice’s skin color.
And it’s even smarter still. The racism here comes not just from the Prentice parents, who are more than willing to accept John Prentice into their home if not their family, but from other places as well. John’s parents (Roy Glenn and Beah Richards, who was Oscar nominated for the role) aren’t particularly pleased with John intending to marry outside the race, either. Most of the vitriol from this direction comes from the Drayton’s cook, Tillie (Isabel Sanford, recognizable immediately as Weezy from The Jeffersons, identifiable by her voice if no other way). For her, the idea of someone of her own race marrying above his station is too much to consider.
In today’s terms the biggest failing of the film is that John Prentice is simply too perfect. We discover he graduated at the top of his class, he’s held professorships at prestigious medical schools and now focuses on something akin to charity work. When he makes a collect call from Matt Drayton’s office, he leaves money on the desk to cover the expense. We hear from Joey that the two have not gotten to the point of intimacy yet not because of her, but because he has decided that it wouldn’t be right until the two are married. And, of course, he’s Sidney Poitier. It’s designed this way on purpose, of course—the only possible objection other than the whirlwind courtship could be his race, which is how the racial issue is forced to the forefront. It just doesn’t play as well today as it did 40-some years ago.
In interesting voice of tolerance comes from the family friend, Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway, also Oscar-nominated). Ryan has hopes for the couple and wants to see them succeed even if everyone else is dead set against the marriage. Christina Drayton warms to the idea quickly, but it is Matt Drayton, the liberal newspaper publisher, who has the hardest time overcoming prejudices he didn’t know he had.
This is a film that could be remade today with a significant change. The easy change would be to turn the happy couple into a gay couple, although it would more than likely create a need to recast the role of the Monsignor.
It’s worth noting that this was Spencer Tracy’s final film and he died a few weeks after he finished shooting. Poitier was so nervous acting across from Tracy and Hepburn that he frequently did his scenes to empty chairs. The fact that the final scene was Spencer Tracy’s last moment on a soundstage adds poignancy to his speech there and gives what he says a sense of additional weight. It’s evident that he’s not just acting but saying things that he really wishes to say about himself and his life and his long-time affair with Hepburn in these moments. It’s rather tragic and beautiful because of it.
I said it earlier, but it bears repeating: this is not a film that has carried over to the modern world very well because society has simply changed. Seeing an interracial couple is no longer anything like a shock to most people. That says a lot positive for our society that something so controversial within my lifetime has become something completely normalized. It’s to the credit of film that it helped start the dialogue, but in a way, it’s to the film’s detriment that the dialogue has moved so far past it.
Why to watch Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: It’s smart as hell.
Why not to watch: It hasn’t aged well.