Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a series of contradictions: liberal, radical, conservative, of its time, ahead of its time, timeless; in favour of civil rights and ‘miscegenation’; against black power and the Civil Rights Movement; favourable towards Reverend King; the N-word used between black characters. A colour studio picture, largely staged within a house; a Cukor-esque comedy with Hepburn and Tracy; a Sidney Poitier, race themed late 60s movie; a Stanley Kramer social issues drama; a film with yet another mammy archetype, Tillie (Isabel Sanford) – not a slave, but still a servant; a 1960s film with a cute interlude with groovy music, milkshake drive-ins, kooky art galleries; a film about a black family. Somehow, these contradictions resolve themselves.
Despite James Baldwin’s argument against John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) as an overqualified, immaculate, perfect, sexless black man: John Prentice taking his shirt off before being rudely interrupted and covering his modesty is kind of hot! Prentice is overqualified, serving a narrative purpose to portray the film’s message, endearing the character to the audience with his personal morality and explaining how he and Joanna met. His relationship with Joanna is mature, whirlwind, adorable, reasoned, cute, never out of place; Hepburn and Tracy as her parents Matt and Christina, in Tracy’s final role, will never be out of place. Kramer allows us to experience a generational difference, with John’s father being lower wage and social class: a mailman who lived through troubled decades with more explicit and fatal racial discrimination than John’s generation – with a closer chronological link to slavery.
My criticisms are that the emotional trauma John experiences from losing a wife and son tragically is never really explored, brushed aside so we can look at his blossoming relationship with Joey. Ten days in Hawaii solely together isn’t enough time to be able to commit to marriage, even in 1967: a few months should be the absolute minimum. There’s a level of miscommunication, uncertainty and a lack of an established relationship between the two families and Joanna’s desire to rush it that isn’t healthy, even if this film raises the idea that a mixed race relationship creates a stronger marriage from the societal challenges inherited. They shouldn’t even be dating yet: Joanna is young and not a child as her mother describes, but John, over 10 years her senior, acts much more mature than her in not wanting to create a rift. John doesn’t suffer from poverty, but is rich enough to afford a flight last minute.
I feel very mixed about Tillie as a character overall, even though this film is able to place women – and indeed black women also – in a strong position. Her reaction against John being “above his class” to be with a white woman seems to play purely to black audiences against assimilation but in maintaining the black community, or white audiences seeking affirmation of their dismissive viewpoints. I really love Spencer Tracy’s mixed reactions and how he tries to resolve those contradictions within himself, but he still seems pretty racist, but also a realistic depiction and a figure who definitely appears time and time again in real life. I really appreciate his worries of discrimination by others without realising his perspective becomes discriminatory in action, and his feelings of what things will be like 50 or 100 years in the future.
There’s some feeling of everything being resolved, especially with Tracy’s speech at the end, but really it isn’t resolved. A mixed race kid that could grow to be president seemed believable only a decade ago. Karen Kramer, in her introduction for the DVD release, says that she feels so disheartened by still hearing racial slurs and discrimination in 2007, and look how things are in 2019! But I’m glad this film coincided with Loving v. Virginia and became a part of the public consciousness.