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Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
A relaxing dinner in San Francisco. Sort of.
A United Airlines Douglas DC-8 jet soars over 60’s San Francisco; brilliantly photographed from the air allowing us to imagine the view of the city by the bay that its passengers are treated to as they descend. The film cuts to SFO, AKA San Francisco International Airport, as Joey (Katharine Houghton) and John (Sidney Poitier) step off the jetway and into the airport. They look like a million bucks. Their chemistry instantly jumps off the screen as they walk, talk, and laugh their way to baggage claim and the taxi stand. It’s lovely.
If you’ve ever taken a car into San Francisco from the airport, you’re familiar with how the city suddenly seems to jump out at you when the 101 winds past the peaks of Bernal Heights and Potrero Hill. If you’re coming home, it’s a sight for sore eyes. If you’re visiting, it’s a blast of majesty as you approach. I’ve never seen a film capture this specific San Francisco moment as well as Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The bulk of the film takes place inside the Drayton residence, which despite being a studio set in Pasadena, is a convincing recreation of a Pac-Heights manse. (Except for the Bay Bridge in the background. You can’t see that from there!)
Setting San Francisco aside, this is a provocative film, as much today as when it came out, but not for the same reasons. To a modern film-goer, there should be an obvious parallel:
Get Out (Jordan Peele, 2017) is an essential companion to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Without it, many scenes of white virtue from the latter go unanswered.
If you’re unfamiliar, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is the American 60’s-era story of a White woman bringing a Black man home to meet her parents. They met on vacation in Hawaii and decided to get married. They’re in love. What follows is a series of chamber scenes in which both families pontificate about the ramifications of their relationship.
We can appreciate these scenes' intent for the period, but we can also judge them for their potential negative impact. For example, the character of Dr. John Prentice is handsome, intelligent, kind, renowned, and independently wealthy. He is a perfect human. Is this the standard a Black man must achieve for acceptance? Upon meeting Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway), Dr. Prentice is lauded for his work and has appeared in a recent magazine article. The film's aim seems to be to show us that a Black man is capable of great things. This is obviously true, but part of the conversation, possibly small talk in the screenwriter’s mind at the time of writing, takes a strange, Peelian turn. The Monsignor says to Joey, “He’s a very important man you know,” referring to Dr. Prentice. Joey responds: “I know, and when I marry him, I’ll be very important too.” Everyone laughs. It’s weird.
Tilly (Isabel Sanford), the Black woman who is the maid for the Draytons, is referred to as “family” in a loving fashion, and she acts the part. She is mistrustful of Dr. Prentice and protective of Joey. She loves the family dearly, despite every interaction with Joey being a direct command to change a detail about dinner or place an order for something she wants. Would Tilly feel this way? I’m sure it’s possible, but should a movie glorify this configuration of a “family?” There is no exploration of the circumstances that leads a person into life-long servitude, even if under the auspice of a paycheck. The film glosses over these points uncritically.
I can’t say how a Black audience might’ve received this at the time. Finding reliable writing on contemporary Black reactions has been a challenge. The film, assuming positive intent, has an admirable aim: breaking down barriers in the 60s and advocating for equality. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won two. (Both to White people.) The Oscars have always been a dubious metric for judging a film, though they may be at their most dubious here; out of ten nominations from a mostly White Academy voting bloc, only one went to a Black person; the actor Beah Richards for her portrayal of Dr. Prentice’s mother. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner makes a strong case for viewing the film akin to ephemeral art, best regarded as something that can only live up to its promise if its transient morals are allowed to decompose and fade away.
After reading this far, you might be wondering why on earth I’m recommending you watch this movie. Because I think this is a bad movie that works exceptionally well, it’s a chance to dig into a well-made film and consider its impact. Bad movies that aren’t well made are a dime a dozen. They’re boring. Bad movies that happen to work; those are the interesting ones. You won’t be bored for a second watching this movie. Movies that are made well, acted well (Poitier stuns with every minor and major choice he makes), shot well, lit well, mixed well, edited well, all of it. These types of films have the power to move an audience. The unfortunate insidiousness is that sometimes these films can move an audience in the wrong way. One of the most rewarding experiences in watching a movie with an axe to grind (great films typically have an axe to grind) is weighing the film and partaking in a conversation about it. This movie is a great conversation starter.
Again, we can acknowledge the movie’s good intentions for the period it was made. We can also recognize its legacy of self-congratulation while doing little to truly dig into the evil of White supremacy. At its best, it gives White people some flawed role models for being better neighbors and citizens. At its worst, it’s an extreme oversimplification of racism and how it works, creating an illusion of progress that only serves to mollify oppressors and their beneficiaries.
If this movie could’ve voted for Barack Obama a third time, it would have.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Written by William Rose; Directed by Stanley Kramer
Stray Thoughts from the Editor
I have no idea why I felt the need to get so specific about the plane in the first sentence. Hopefully, my brother, Spencer, an Air Force Vet, will nod in approval.
Annoyingly, after writing all of the above, I wrote a two-sentence review while logging the movie on Letterboxd, and I suspect it says everything I said above, but, ya know, in two sentences.
I also did what I often do after writing a review and asked myself: What did Ebert think of this movie? I read his four-star review and found it compelling in its generosity towards the film, to the point that it almost made me reconsider my harsher stance. Almost.
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