A white father discovers his daughter wants to marry a black man: a simple story of race tensions, right?
We all have expectations in life. They can be as small as having twenty minutes of the day to drink an all-important coffee in the morning or as grandiose as believing you will get married before you are thirty. I have an expectation that local football (soccer) team Newcastle United will win 2-1 every weekend, a series of predictions that would see them finish 1st every season, despite seven years of crippling mediocrity (except for this season, in which we have won every game I predicted we’d lose, and storming the league in a season we were predicted to be a laughing stock). If I were a gambling man, I’d be broke and living in a box right now.
When these things are taken away from us, we react in different ways, if we expect to have our morning coffee and don’t, we may become tired and irritable. If we don’t get married before we are thirty, we could panic and throw ourselves into a marriage with someone totally incompatible. When someone is having a bad day, it’s because the world isn’t giving something he or she is expecting.
Film is exactly the same. Characters go into every scene expecting something, and they’re then shocked to find the exact opposite. They go to make a withdrawal from the bank, and they are told their life savings is gone. They come home to meet their wife, and they find she’s in the arms of another man (or maybe another woman). How these people react to these events demonstrates their true character. Sometimes, the results are startling. They can reveal themselves as closet psychotic, hopelessly in love with someone else, or having an entirely secret life and identity. So what would happen if a supposedly liberal father were told his daughter wanted to marry a black man? This is the fantastic premise of the 1967 classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
What makes this film so exceptional is that it is a master of twisting the expectations of its main characters. Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy, whose performance was remarkable considering his ill health, which culminated with his death just two weeks after the film finished shooting) returns to his home, expecting a nice quiet afternoon of golf, wandering into the hall and encountering the cook of the house rambling about his daughter Joey (Katherine Houghton, playing opposite her mother, Katherine Hepburn) and a ‘doctor’. He stumbles onto the terrace to see his wife and daughter sitting next to John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), a charming black doctor who we know to be the man Joey wants to marry. What’s so fantastic about this scene is the ignorance that Matt displays, wandering in and out of the scene as the penny slowly but surely drops. Despite considering himself a liberal and modern thinking man, he has in his mind always expected Joey to marry a white man.
Then the film decides to have fun by taking it further. They are not a couple having been together a few years; they have only known each other for a couple of weeks. They are not having a drawn out engagement and a big church wedding; instead, they will get married in a few more weeks in Geneva due to John having to go there on business. In fact, the reason they are here now is so that Matt can give his blessing on the marriage that night so that they can leave in peace. Matt’s reaction is, to no surprise… silence. He spends the next ten minutes contemplating this news, and then to his wife Christina’s disapproval, he calls up a friend to find out any dirt on him, possibly hoping that he can find some way out of this monumental decision. John doesn’t just come back clean, but is by his medical background a miracle worker, the kind of man Matt admires. Choosing their marital fate will be the toughest decision of his life.
To give this context, at the time this film was produced the idea of interracial marriage was such a contentious issue that in 17 southern states it was still illegal. Even if that marriage can be verified by the state, there was still the obstacle of what society thought. To get married to someone of a different colour could open you up to years of sideways glances, awkward silences, and straight-out abuse. This is the conflict that chews away at Matt for the entire film. He likes John, thinks he’s a stand up guy who has clearly thought this situation through and cares very deeply for Joey. But he knows that if they get married, she could be subject to abuse and disapproval, which could make the both of them desperately unhappy. On the other hand, who wants to tell his daughter that she can’t marry the love of her life?
The rest of the film unfolds the slow burning thought process of Matt as the film creeps towards the ‘Dinner’ bit of the title, where he will make his decision. His thoughts are brought to the screen by different encounters through the day, including his long time friend and priest, Ryan, who challenges some of his more conservative fears. He also has an altercation with a black motorist at an ice cream parlour, which seems to be included for the purpose of a twee moment in which Matt accidentally buys the wrong ice cream and ponders whether something new is good. Thankfully, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner largely avoids these blatant statements, instead, focusing on creating a strong and compelling picture of the late sixties race issues.
While assistant to Christina Hillary’s disgust at Joey’s fiancé is not particularly surprising, it is the cook Tillie’s (Isabel Sanford) disapproval of the union that provides genuine shock. A strong black woman, she accosts John for getting ideas above his station and reminding him where he comes from. Her acceptance of her place in the race and class system as well as her disinterest in Martin Luther King, Jr. is a genuine surprise but reflective of a side of society the majority of people don’t even consider. It’s this kind of strong writing that makes this film such an iconic and affecting piece of cinema.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinneris a fantastic piece of cinema, which culminates into an emotive final twenty minutes including both families. There are some criticisms of the film, including the slightly idealised and faultless character of John (which was a deliberate decision to mark out quite clearly that the only reason Matt could object to the marriage was because John is black), but this is a minor quibble. It’s a film that still stands up as a strong piece of character driven cinema, and provides a telling portrait of an important and complicated time in America.