Thursday, November 13, 2008

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)

(Image from Wikipedia)

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)

This film is probably more famous for what it's about than for being a classic of cinema. And that's probably because it ain't all that great a film. The story in a nutshell - Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn) are a well off liberal married couple whose daughter Joey (Katherine Houghton) surprises them by bringing home a black man she intends to marry, Dr. John Prentice (Sydney Poitier). The parents are forced to confront their own, probably subconscious and unacknowledged racial bias while coming to terms with their daughter's whirlwind romance and the consequences an inter-racial marriage might have for the entire family. The film is basically a talky drama where the characters awkwardly discuss the situation and all of its ramifications as the parents try to decide whether they can give their blessing.

It's an interesting film, one that touches on many of the race issues that were (and are, I suppose) prevalent at the time. The problem is how obvious and unsubtle the film is, verbalizing its ideas in a didactic manner that borders on patronizing. Subtle the script ain't, and it's a testament to the film's powerhouse stars that they managed to allay its failings and elevate the film into something that commands one's attention. While all of the characters are given a fair amount of personality, in the case of daughter Joey her overly overt sweetness and naivety starts to grate after a while.

My main qualm with the film is the way it stacks the odds in favour of its argument before arriving at an ending that, despite all of the hand wringing by the characters, is a foregone conclusion. Consider that the character of Dr. John Prentice is so impossibly awesome and decent that he beggars belief; black or not, the guy's a hell of a catch by any standard. And this is the part that bugs me - it's like the film is saying "look, this guy's black but he's also an incredible human being, alright?" What if he hadn't been such a great guy, would he have somehow been less acceptable to Joey's parents? Now that would have been an interesting scenario! I get that part of what the film is saying is that, despite how great Dr. Prentice is the parents are still filled with doubt, but I think this aspect of the story winds up being a betrayal of the broader theme of racial equality. It's like Dr. Prentice is acceptable because he's exceptional.

The other thing that bugs me is how the parents sit around contemplating the race issue while ignoring the more salient fact that their daughter is about to marry someone she's just met, a notion that would concern parents in the real world, especially ones who have children as seemingly naive as Joey.

Ultimately 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner' is a decent enough film with a message that it delivers very clearly, but with little subtlety or intelligence. Definitely worth watching at least for its historical significance and for the central performances, but don't expect to be blown away or have your world view shaken, as the film really is unquestionably a product of its time.

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