To appreciate the significance of this film takes a little bit of time travel. Imagine if you will, the America of yesteryear, specifically the late 1960s. Over a dozen states have formal laws against interracial marriage. The civil rights movement is at a fever pitch. And white and black race relations are strained to say the least. How can they not be?
Anyways, I don’t need to lecture anyone on the history of race in this country. I Myself, being a less than milk toast individual, can attest to the fun and funny twists one’s life can take because of pigmentation. At the end of the day, and this will be all I will say on the matter, who cares? Who cares what color your skin is, or for that matter, your hair, eyes, and the rest of it. That’s how I feel about the matter. And now onto the movie itself.
The title poses a question, and the answer is quite easy. Who’s coming to dinner? A black man with your white daughter. And why? Because he’s going to marry her. That’s the basic premise of this movie. To many self-described modern liberals, this premise is undoubtedly dated. Though, it was ahead of its time back in the 60s when interracial marriages were rarer than sapphire rubies.
Joanna’s parents, especially Spencer Tracy’s character, Matt Drayton, do a great job conveying the conundrum their daughter has put them in. Ultimately, they are concerned about the violent reaction from racist strangers to a well-educated black man and a gorgeous white woman. [Here comes a spoiler and another down below, but it’s pretty obvious where this movie is going.] Matt Drayton takes some convincing, finally being won over by Mrs. Mary Prentice, Sidney Poitier’s mother in the film. The acting is fine across the board. Spencer Tracy steals the show, and is meant to, with a roller coaster of fatherly emotions to act out as he goes from shocked to accepting to logically disapproving to lovingly endorsing. The other characters don’t have to emote nearly as much. The white girl marrying the black man gets few lines and is just meant to be ecstatic the whole time about the whole thing. In fact, I think she comes off as kind of naïve, and she really isn’t a great actor like Tracy, Hepburn, or Poitier, and as it turns out was only put in the picture because she was Katherine Hepburn’s niece. Nevertheless, I think the casting choice was excellent because she strikes a strong family resemblance with Hepburn and the director and screenwriters wisely kept her from saying too much.
Sidney Poitier’s great scene is when he tells off his dad, an old school postman. The summation of the scene is in Poitier’s characters final retort to a father who just made his case against the union, “You see yourself as a colored man, while I see myself as a man.” Overall, the dialogue between them is well written and struck me as realistic on some human level. I can very much imagine a black father and son of the 60s exchanging the sentiments in that scene.
Indeed, as with many old movies I’ve been watching lately, the dialogue is damn good. It’s clever. It’s unique. It’s interesting. It’s oft times catchy. And the overall rhetoric and logic underneath it is very intelligent and literary. A pattern is evident to me in these old pictures, especially dramas. Since action sequences basically suck by today’s standards, the great weight of entertaining the audience must be carried by the interaction and thus conversation between the characters. I can anticipate your rejoinder. “Older audiences didn’t have new movies to compare the action sequences of their day against.” This is true. But I think they could compare the action sequences of their movies to real life, don’t you think? And I’m sure, they found the special effects, fight choreography, and all that other jazz propping up 90% of the terrible movies produced today (but unavailable in their time), in a word—lacking. For me, these old movies really get the fundamentals of cinema storytelling down pat, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” included. They are: Great premise. Great acting. Great dialogue. Great conflict. Great resolution. The ending is particularly satisfying, as the film ends with a wide angle zoomed out shot of everyone finally sitting down to dinner, the subtext, something along the lines of, “Can’t we all just get along? After all, we all like to eat and be well, drink and be merry, and talk and be heard.”
I enjoyed this movie and especially loved the process shots of San Francisco Bay as seen from the imaginary terrace of the Drayton’s home. I’ve been to San Francisco in recent years. And I think the city has a lot going for it. The views are fantastic. The wide and the close-up ones. The weather is generally friendly, if not always warm and inviting. I love staring out into vast spaces filled with water and boats and little islands. There’s a lot going on, all the time, and it makes you feel small and big at the same time. The joy and ecstasy of being part of a world so vast and dynamic can really hit you in Frisco if you pay attention and let it all wash over you. I’ve lived in other big cities, like New York, but the skyscrapers in Manhattan make telescopic viewing difficult, in SF there are far fewer skyscrapers and I think for that reason, coupled with natural topography, it is a superior place in terms of sight-seeing in the most reductive, and not touristic, sense of the term. New York has a lot going for it too, more people more money more more more. But for a nature lover like myself the Bay Area will always carry a bit of mystique. It’s not for nothing I wanted to go to Stanford while in high school. Who knows maybe one day I’ll find a way to spend more time there. The cost of living is quite insane. And the homeless problem is beyond insane, not so much because people are living outdoors, I think on some level that’s not so bad, but because there’s a real apathy among the rich so called liberals in SF and Berkeley, especially the latter, where a whole city of tents in People’s Park stand in stark contrast to a neighborhood filled with multi-million dollar homes and not to far away, one of the world’s most prestigious and loaded universities, Birkenstockley. In a country so rich, filled with billionaires and shadow trillionaires, you’d think someone would have a heart and set aside some land for these people.
However, I digress. The movie doesn’t really make SF into a character in a big way. No great scenes in famous settings. It’s more subtle. The city and its liberal ethos underlie the movie. After all, where else could you imagine white parents happily endorsing a mixed-race marriage in 1960s America, if not San Francisco, probably no where else. It’s hard to imagine a movie addressing so taboo a subject today. Faux outrage culture has all but killed real taboos. Perhaps, a film about a white woman who brings a half black half latin transgender cyborg to dinner? I leave you to figure that one. Au revoir.