Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is about prejudice. Not just based on colour but on age, too. Many characters are carrying around some sort of prejudice, whether they know it or not, just like in real life. The narrative is a very contrived one, but it’s something that can largely be forgiven and ignored considering what we get: a very powerful and gripping film about people talking to each other.
John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) and Joanne Drayton (Katherine Houghton) are in love and want to be married. Complication is that they haven’t even known each other two weeks, so of course their parents are going to have objections. Well, perhaps that’s what the film would be about if it was made today. Even then, it seems like the elephant in the room – something Joanne’s father (Spencer Tracey) might be grasping at the whole time. It does undermine the film quite a bit, especially since there’s no reason for the couple not to have known each other longer (plot-wise) or simply decide to take the time to get to know each other better over a year first. While aware of these failings I don’t think them that important on balance as I was riveted throughout, completely absorbed in so many of the conversations and on the edge of tears for such a long duration. There’s very little relief and it’s almost as exhausting emotionally to watch as it is impossible to walk away from.
The main focus is on marriage between people of differing skin colour. Many people have problems with it, be they liberals championing equal rights (in theory), black, white, working class. There are obvious gulfs between many of the characters in the film and it’s certainly nice to see quite a variety of people from different backgrounds with variously prejudiced views. Prejudice is something I think that human beings are prone too, and those who do not examine themselves as possible harbourers may unwittingly provide it a safe haven.
The acting is excellent, perhaps with the notable exception of Houghton, whose role is that of the annoying, happy, headstrong girl who’s madly in love but doesn’t seem to give a monkey’s what anyone else thinks or feels. Of course, this isn’t how the narrative wants to represent her, it’s merely my opinion of such people who seem to think they exist in a vacuum and by following their heart and whims can never affect anyone else negatively. Indeed, I see no reason why Poitier’s character (and everyone else) is so crazy about her in the film, other than because IT IS WRITTEN! Thankfully, there’s a lot more of the other characters than there is Houghton’s.
Spencer Tracey is a primary focal point. He’s great as the young girl’s dad, but many of his faces are very familiar and not too different from Fury, in which he played a very different role. While I’m still unconvinced as to his greatness, I must admit that Katherine (“The Great”) Hepburn also puts in a familiar performance (especially the tears).
I really loved Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. That doesn’t mean I’m completely blind to its faults but I think that they largely don’t matter. One concern I do have is that in suggesting that nobody could have legitimate, unprejudiced reservations about their kids getting married, knowing each other less than two weeks (why, oh why does the plot do this absolutely stupid thing?!?), it bludgeons all opposition as being merely prejudiced and bigoted when this is not necessarily the case. This is a danger that is now coming to fruition in many debates about rights of all kinds: they are increasingly polarised and people with legitimate, unprejudiced concerns are being smeared as hate-filled bigots. There’s also a worryingly fascistic element emerging that wants to criminalise anyone who doesn’t agree with their views and throw those they’ve tarred and feathered as modern-day heretics (in an increasingly politically correct world) into prison. This is not directly the fault of the film, but it is something such a weak narrative element is in danger of implying to a mass of people increasingly disinterested in pursuing subjects to any depth. At the time Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was made, racial prejudice in the US was a very serious problem, while the more modern one that I think will become more serious over the next fifty years wasn’t. In my mind it’s important to be on guard about prejudice but it’s equally important not to be swept up in a raging lynch mob of those attacking people with differing views (i.e. it is prejudice to say that somebody is prejudiced or a bigot with absolutely zero evidence merely because they disagree with us).
Watch it and see what you think. I’ve focused quite a lot on what I see as the film’s failures because I loved so much about it that I was concerned that blind enthusiasm would mislead. It’s not perfect but it’s still a great, challenging film that deserves to be seen. At the very least, it should be thought-provoking.