Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn)’s daughter has come home from university with some exciting news: She’s met a guy! She’s only known him for 10 days but she thinks she’s in love and would like to get married. They’ve never seen her so happy so, even though this is pretty sudden, this is great news. What’s his name? Dr. John Prentice. Oooohh, a doctor? What’s he like? Well, Mom and Dad, There’s just one little thing. It’s not a big deal but you might want to sit down. He’s, well, he’s black.
You probably still could pull enough drama out of this concept to make a movie today but, in 1967, no one else had really tried to make a movie about inter-racial marraiges in a positive light. Hell, it was even still illegal in 14 states when they started filming. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a huge success, disproving the conventional wisdom of major studios at the time that films with black actors and black themes would not be interesting to mainstream audiences. It was also nominated for 10 Oscars. But how does it hold up today?
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner has been the subject of some controversey in recent years. Both Herman Koch’s novel The Dinner (read it if you get the chance) and Lee Daniels’ The Butler feature impassioned dinner table debates over the film’s message. Dr. Prentice is played by the great Sidney Poitier as polite, well-spoken, and successful. Of course her parents learn to love him, modern haters claim. Prentice is as non-threatening as can be, with some criticizing the character as too “assimilated” or even “too white”.
I will not address these criticisms except to suggest that they may miss the point. This was a pretty forward-thinking movie for 1967 but it was still 1967 and it was made with a white audience in mind and it’s what’s going on with Tracy and Hepburn’s characters that make things interesting. A less interesting movie would have potrayed them as a couple of overt bigots, leaving it up to Poitier’s character to shatter their prejudices. Instead, Matt and Christina are San Fransisco intellectuals ( he runs a newspaper, she runs an art gallery) and self-appointed liberals. Matt’s daughter describes him as a “life-long liberal who has spent his entire life fighting discrimination”. But what happens when a black man asks him for his daughter’s hand in marraige? One friend of the family watches the whole drama with amusement, “watching a broken-down phony liberal come face-to-face with his principles”.
The haters aren’t wrong. It is dated. The music is corny, the backyard scenes are so obviously filmed on a set that it’s almost hilarious, and a couple of scenes are just plain silly. But the dilemma that Matt and Christina face still rings true. Spencer Tracy is especially compelling as he lashes out at everyone, angry mostly at himself as he comes to realize that maybe he wasn’t as enlightened as he thought, now that he himself has to make the changes that he keeps insisting America must make. Maybe because Poitier has such screen-presence, it can be easy to put the focus on Dr. Prentice but the film’s main struggle is really between the Drayton’s and their own values. Watching this unfold is what makes Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner a Hollywood classic, one that I make a point of revisiting every couple of years and that will endure long after we’ve all forgotten about Lee Daniels’ The Butler.