November 11th, 2008
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? is a movie that countered the racist stereotypes of it’s time. It showed America a couple that was perfectly happy and completely unobjectionable despite the fact that it was an interracial one. To drive this point home, the filmmakers created the character of John Prentice as a man without flaws. The list of achievements he has done in the movie is almost overwhelming from his academic credentials to his professional work as head of the World Health Organization. He is also morally flawless, a key example being that he refused to engage in premarital sex with Joanna despite the fact that she attempted to initiate it. This all leaves the audience with only one possible reason that Joanna’s father would object to the marriage. This strategy makes sense considering the racial climate of the 60’s but undermines the movie’s strength by creating an unbelievable character in Dr. Prentice. Overall though this characterization was necessary or else the audience would be able to believe that Mr. Drayton opposed the marriage for legitimate reasons. The movie is especially successful in its treatment of racism by showing the racial ideas of African Americans and Liberal Whites. It would be easy to show the racism of a white supremacist but the movie shows us the more subtle forms racism takes when present in people intellectually opposed to it.
Where the movie succeeds with regard to racial egalitarianism, it fails with regard to gender. It portrays the wife’s role as to support her husband and certainly subordinate to him. Joanna comments at one point that she will be successful when she marries John because he is successful implying that a women receives her social status from her husband. John make the decision regarding the marriage’s dependence on Joanna’s parents’ approval without her knowledge, which the movie shows as a good thing because John is protecting Joanna. John also says, to which the Drayton’s agree, that he plans to have children because it isn’t a marriage without children. Setting the fact that John doesn’t discuss this with his fiancé aside, it is still surprising that a movie that attempts to expand marriage still has it rigidly defined in way that would exclude many people. This view of marriage of course puts emphasis on the wife’s ability to have and raise children. All of this is problematic but the movie reveals its true ideal of women when Mrs. Drayton says that she has never disagreed with Mr. Drayton during their marriage. Besides being unrealistic, it makes a claim that a women’s role is to support her husband through anything.
A major weakness of the movie comes in its naïve optimism. Like Joanna, the movie believes that the end of racism is just around the corner. John shows this when he says to his father, “you think of yourself as a colored man, I think of myself as a man.” History has shown this optimism to be unfortunately overly hopeful. In the movie, all of the young people are completely not racist. Two out of three of the couples shown are in interracial relationships. The movie suggests that when the laws change the people change but that hasn’t been true. By putting all of the racism on the older characters, the movie does a disservice by ignoring that racism is not just a generational thing, it is a cultural one.
Despite all of its shortcomings, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? remains an important movie that addresses race in a way that was progressive for its time. It allows us to see how recently the dominate discourse was that interracial unions were wrong. It also allows us to see that gender relationships were also unequal, as they still are today. The movie does cop out in the end though when the final definitive word on interracial unions is given by an old white man.