One would quickly assume that a film with such an invested interest in talking about the racial issues and dilemmas of an America still in the grips of a violent, troublesome and, more importantly, societally altering ear of the late 60's would prove troublesomely dated by the time I get around to watching almost fifty years later. One would assume a lot of things about a film like Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, a work by the great Stanley Kramer and starring some of America's most well-established and well-regarded actors. I had written the film off, primarily because I feared it would have a sensibility that was indicative of its time and the racial elements would be dealt with in a manner far too idyllic and concerned with political correctness to properly deserve the repeated recognition and devotion even years after its initial release. Sure it may have been the fact that I had the great fortune of seeing this on a big screen or my adoration for a well made melodrama, but I can say with the utmost certainty that Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is not only the rare stroke of masterful filmmaking that results in a perfect piece of cinema (No Country for Old Men and Casablanca being two other examples from different decades), but one that proves more socially relevant today than it ever has in the past. Indeed, as I was watching the "gimmick"of this film unfold I could not help but wonder that, if this film had not already existed in the cinematic consciousness of America that the notion of an interracial couple, one of a white woman and a person of color getting married, would have proved equally challenging to much of America today as it, undoubtedly, did in the hostile racial climate of 1967. I am a bit disconcerted by the seemingly comfortable embraces by some on the film's more comedic elements as being the core to its continued adoration, because it is a searing indictment on both the ignorance spouted by those with foolish racist mind frames, as well as a careful consideration as to what a progressive mind really thinks when faced with the reality of "otherness" or socially revolutionary behavior stepping through their doors. Without a doubt, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner works on a structuralist level, but it works deeper on its pertinent and multi-layered consideration of race in America and teaches lessons far too great to be suppressed and should be required viewing on the ideas of race relations in America, much as the work of Mark Twain continues to exist as a similar frame of reference.
For a narrative that runs well under two hours, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner takes great care to include as much information and consider as many viewpoints on an issue as possible. The story, of course, focuses on the newly engaged couple of Joanna "Joey" Drayton (Katherine Haughton) a recent college graduate who finds herself smitten with the successful doctor John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). Indeed their relationship would be relatively normal were it not for the distinct fact that both were of different races. This noticeable division and difference is immediately condemned by the world around them, but Joey, ever the optimist, believes that her parents will not only welcome John into their family, but they will also be open to their rather quickly thrown together wedding plans. The first to meet John is Joey's mother Christina (Katherine Hepburn) whose shock is immediately and noticable although she quickly comes to her senses and is happy for the introduction to John, who she finds an upstanding and well-to-do man, although she expresses clear concern for how Joey's father might react. This hesitation is justified because Matt (Spencer Tracy), the patriarchal figure of the Drayton household is indeed uncertain about the entire endeavor, first because he thinks it to be a hasty decision, and secondly, because he is quite aware of the social stigma the two will carry and the very violent way some of the world will react to such an engagement. Nonetheless, John explains that he cares deeply for Joey and that he will only marry her should Matt give his consent. A dear friend of the Drayton family, one Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellawy), attempts to assuage the concerns of Matt noting that a change in societal attitudes has to happen at some point, regardless of their liberal views, Ryan reminds Matt that they mean nothing if they cannot be backed up with quantifiable actions. John faces condemnation from the Drayton's maid Tillie (Isabel Sanford) who finds John's actions reprehensible because he is stepping beyond his race. Nonetheless, a dinner goes on as planned, only made all the more intense by the sudden invitation by Joey for John's parents to join in the dinner. Invariably it leads to a serious of dialogues and discussions between the families all of which, ultimately, rest upon Matt's decision to give his blessing, which plays out with a stern sense of importance not only within the narrative, but as an extension to the world outside the film itself, almost as if to speak truth to an injustice that transcends the filmic universe and exists in the very spaces of cinematic encounters.
It is precisely the transcendent elements of this film that make Guess Who's Coming to Dinner a continually relevant film. It is one task simply to create a (to use an earlier term) gimmick about an interracial couple announcing their wedding plans, however, it is an entirely different film and one that grapples intensely with the personal, social and political ramifications of such revolutionary actions for not only the couple of Joey and John, but for the larger state of their respective families and America as a whole. Take for example the interactions between Tilly and John in the context of welcoming a new member into the family one would expect Tilly to be quite excited, ecstatic and embracing of the person, especially since John is such an upstanding gentleman. The problem is, however, that not only does John represent to Tilly a privilege she has not obtained, but it also forces her to come to grips with her own racial oppression as a servant, which affords Matt and Kristina some freedom from the chores of house and home, which she undertakes, and likely returns home to continue undertaking well after her work day for the Drayton's. Of course, this is a layered reading of the film, all be it an important one, and the real issue comes from deconstructing the notion that a person can separate their racist actions from their verbal claims to be nothing of the such. If both Matt and Kristina were as open to equality amongst the races as they claim to be, nothing about John would have caused any red flags, certainly not his race. Kristina, of course, snaps out of her foolishness rather quickly and realizes the two are madly in love and that her hesitation is indeed a result of her archaic views of the world, even if only out of the fear for her daughter and soon-to-be husband's safety. Matt takes a considerably higher amount of prodding and self-reflection before he can come to grips with the issue, both in the shock that it leaves him in his own belief system, but also because he genuinely believes that the couple will face degradation beyond their worst nightmares. Indeed it is not until he is reminded that love is a transcendent thing that is often lost with time, by of all people John's mother Mrs. Prentice (Beah Richards) that he comes to understand that his passion for equality will just have to fight twice as hard to help the love of his daughter and John overcome the vast ignorance and hate that they will invariably face.
Key Scene: The entire movie flows like a wonderful stings concerto starting of simply, perhaps even playfully, but as things come together it is clear that like a concerto normalcy can only stand so long and things swell and swing accordingly, often clashing in purposeful disharmony. As such, the scene where Tillie finally confronts John with her opinion takes on a layer of fury that is matched by a slanted camera angle and an extreme close-up and this is only one of many scenes where the filmic structure alters ever so slightly to convey a mood.
I was mesmerized by this film on the big screen and am not sure how it holds up when brought onto smaller proportions, as such I would suggest renting it before purchasing.