I had a hankering to watch a Sidney Poitier film ever since learning about his groundbreaking Oscar win for Lillies of the Field in 1963. My allegiance to Poitier was strong, as I had loved him ever since I saw Sneakers at a young age--completely unaware of the history and legacy that had preceded him. This weekend while choosing between To Sir With Love and Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, we settled on the latter after reading the extensive cinematic history behind the film.
The film was completed just 17 days before Spencer Tracy died. Katharine Hepburn ended up even using her salary as backing in order to make the movie, as the studio didn't think Tracy would make it to the end of filming. Hepburn's tears at the end of the film during Tracy's pivotal speech were in fact real tears, a relieved feeling of accomplishment, and a deep sadness evident in knowing that this would be his last film---and their last film as a pair.
These back stories remained fresh in my mind as I settled in to finally see what I had spent all day reading up on.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is an interesting film to watch now. On the one hand it's embarrassing to undergo the blatant racism exuding from almost all of the characters. On the other it provides an interesting commentary on why people get so uppity about marriage and further more--why they shouldn't. I kept wondering if the film was made today, would it take on the current problems surrounding the country involving gay marriage? Would the next generation sit down to watch it and exclaim in wonder at how they can't believe that at one point, gay marriage was illegal, the way that I couldn't believe interracial marriage was also? It's an interesting thing to think about, but perhaps most importantly, I think many of the themes are still relevant, especially Spencer Tracy's famous speech at the end.
When it comes down to it, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner really just makes me mad. It's a fine film, but the idea that someone can be prevented from marrying the person they love because of social implications, and the authority that people have over others is just ridiculous. A film like this is in many ways a time capsule, but it is also then a film that reminds us of how stupid we can be sometimes. A film that requires us to witness a transformation of our past view points.
Another aggravating point, is that several people have come out and said that making Sidney Poitier's character so respectful, well dressed, and intelligent is racist in itself. They believe that Poitier embodies in essence the character of a white man. One important thing to take note of however is that John Prentice should embody the character of a white man--because that in hindsight is exactly the kind of person the Drayton's want their daughter to marry. John is in many ways, the perfect man for their daughter, in fact he's almost too good for their daughter. Because of this, the idea that the only real thing standing in their way IS the color of his skin, and that is what makes things so infuriating. It's proof that racism is in many ways skin deep. It's for lack of a better word...dumb.
The film also does a fine job of pointing out how everyone has a prejudice of some kind.
The African-American cook has a boiling prejudice against men of her own skin color, accusing him of having something else up his sleeve. Her prejudice is an alarming one, as it concerns protecting the little girl she helped raise--but it's also just a surprising form of black on black racism. Tillie is perhaps the most angry at the newly introduced couple, and the look in her eyes is enough to send anyone running, while John merely laughs. Could it be that John himself is holding a prejudice against the fact that a house cook is telling him what to do?
Another form of prejudice is evident when Mr. Drayton gets in the car accident after his random search for ice cream. He backs up without looking, causing him to make quite a dent in a young man's car. A young man who just happens to be black. The young man yells at Mr. Drayton, pinpointing his old age as the cause of the accident.
He makes remarks about old people not being able to drive properly, when in all actuality Mr. Drayton just had something else on his mind. Being put in that position however upsets Mr. Drayton, and although he doesn't outwardly show it, we can notice a shift in his perceptions. Being the one that gets unfairly grouped in a stereotype based on his appearance is upsetting to Mr. Drayton, and slowly but surely he starts realizing that doing such a thing is absolutely ludicrous.
While the film is well done, I still find that the bulk of the praise around it revolves around how groundbreaking the themes are. While this was being filmed, interracial marriage was still illegal in a few states. Seeing Sidney Poitier's character try to talk some sense into his own father, and saying a line like,
"Dad, you're my father. I'm your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man. "
was epic. I mean, moments like that where characters say something that is so dead on just make you want to shout from the highest peak....YES! The same goes for Spencer Tracy's final speech in which he ends with the idea that it doesn't matter what anyone else thinks. What matters is how John and Joanna feel about each other--is so simple yet something that people continue to ignore. It's something that will continue to baffle me and although the film was an enjoyable one to watch, laden with fantastic performances and the chronically weepy eyes of Katharine Hepburn--I will always be drawn to the revolutionary way that this film presents the idea of marriage. Call it dated if you want to, but I will continue to disagree. Especially in this day and age when a person's right to marry someone they love is still being challenged.