Film Feministe: Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner?

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?

It's racially refreshing!

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner? (1967) . spoilers.

A plot synopsis: Old-line liberals Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) have raised their daughter Joey (Katharine Houghton) to think for herself and not blindly conform to the conventional. Still, they aren’t prepared for the shock when she returns home from a vacation with a new fiancé: African-American doctor John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). While they come to grips with whatever prejudices they might still harbor, the younger folks must also contend with John’s parents (Roy Glenn Sr. and Beah Richards), who are dead-set against the union.

I was born in 1977, ten years after this film debuted. Interracial marriage has been legal, if not necessarily sanctioned or socially-accepted, my entire lifetime. I am white and I have lived on the West Coast my entire life, in mostly white environs (tempered a bit with Latino and Native American non-white families). I was raised by a soi disant “progressive” family and the subtle (and less subtle) internalized racist, patriarchal, heterosexist, and adultist attitudes typical in these kinds of families. While not relating entirely to the social class of the Drayton family – “self-made” upper class – I could relate to the “old-line liberal” family values they were imbued with.

Besides my family environs, I was raised in a so-called “post-racial” America. I was taught in school that racial issues were mostly a thing of the past. You could look up these troubles in a book, then shut the book and you didn’t have to think about it any more. I was taught not only a colorblind approach to solving problems, but also a colorblind way of looking at the world (I’ve written a tiny bit about that before). I was taught being called a “racist” was shockingly hurtful, hurtful enough we defensively denied any such charge rather than approaching it with openness and curiosity. Our own white privilege required that other people were “racists”. Any suggestion we might have these attitudes was met with staunch (or angry) defensiveness. I was raised in an era where people sneered at the concept of “political correctness”, a backlash that, curious enough, continues today.

It wasn’t pretty, but it’s where I came from. And for a few minutes, I want to talk about the film a little bit.

Popular film critic Roger Ebert says a lot of good things about the work, and I agree with much he said. (My advice? Stop reading, watch the film, read his review, then read mine.) Like Ebert I also didn’t find the contrived deadline all that contrived, given the framework and usual limitations of cinematic storytelling (although I could have used at least one character pointing out that, indeed, everyone involved had been given ample time to make their mind up about the issue at hand, i.e. their lifetimes leading up to this evening). I didn’t mind the “perfect” Poitier character although I think roles like this deserve some examination within our cultural context.

Along with the contrived plot “deadline” comes the contrived grouping, within the course of the evening, of several duos and trios of all the involved individuals – the domestic worker, the family’s spiritual counselor, both sets of parents, and the intended bride and groom. The movie moved through several of these conversations as each character stated his or her case – in formal language or the most familiar private talk – to one another. Again, this contrivance irritated me far less than what, as it came to pass, it left out (more in a minute).

Now unlike Ebert, I found the study scene between Jr. and Sr. Prentice not only unobjectionable, but absolutely beautiful. I grant the validity of Ebert’s points that within the film one father (the black one) is framed as “lesser” than the other (the white one). However, it is the moment between parent and child that moved me. To me this scene captured the boldness and heartbreak at the moment a child deliberately turns aside from the values of a dearly-loved parent, to make his own future. As both a grown child and a parent myself, this scene – the one my brother cited to me the other day, inspiring me to view the film – hit me in the gut. I’ll transcribe a bit of it here, where Prentice (the son) speaks in refutation to Prentice (the father’s) stated – and very real – sacrifices:

“Listen to me. You say you don’t want to tell me how to live my life? What do you think you’ve been doing?

“You tell me what rights I’ve got or haven’t got… and what I owe to you for what you’ve done for me.

“Let me tell you something.

“I owe you nothing.

“If you carried that [mail] bag a million miles, you did what you were supposed to do, because you brought me into this world, and from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me. Like I will owe my son, if I ever have another.”

Now if only – if only – the film had managed a similarly spirited conversation where (white) daughter Joey puts her (white) father – the lynchpin in the romance – in his place.

The film generally contained a lot of incredibly human moments – and some wonderfully frank conversations. The performances were at turns subtle and lovely, then dramatic and heavy-handed. Hepburn was, of course, beautiful and glamorous, and her campy but rapier-like sendoff of a rude coworker was a bit of gooey deliciousness.

However, there was something that bothered me about the film, and that was the capital-P patriarchy, which is not challenged by the work – except in the abovementioned father and son impassioned talk, where a black father is chastized – one iota. For one thing, despite the above plot synopsis’ error, both the daughter and the two mothers are for the marriage. They are the voices of gentleness, passion, and optimism, but at the same time, the film lets us know it is not their voices that are going to count.

And along this line, every single character’s opinions, feelings, and interactions brings us to the film denoument, except one crucial interaction – the father Drayton, put in the position of deciding his daughter’s future happiness – and his daughter herself. And at the end of the film we have a speech: the Old White Dude that gets to decide everything, and gets to bless everything (or not), and sums up everyone’s feelings and dresses down every individual there (including telling his daughter to “shut up”), going on at lengths as to how he’s been insulted. Finally (and predictably) he gives his twinkly-eyed pedantic blessing, everyone sighs in happiness at this wonderful wonderful man, and he shouts at the black domestic worker to get dinner served. This is, literally, how the film ends.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed much of the film. I thought it refreshing and funny (the daughter’s early line, “He thinks you’re gonna faint because he’s a Negro” made me laugh aloud), human and sweet. But in a film meant to be socially significant, loving, and even a bit sappy, we’re still firmly reminded of who sanctions, and should sanction, our future, progressive or no: big white daddy.

So tell me. Is that how things really are?

I welcome feedback; email me your responses if you’d like them published them here. kelly AT hogaboom DOT org.