This is part of the Summer Under the Stars Blogathon sponsored by Journeys in Classic Film. I am thankful to Kristen Lopez for allowing me to participate. It is also part of my own The Politics Of... series, where I discuss any potential political meanings behind films. Today's star is Sydney Poitier.
Miscegenation, the romantic or sexual relations between people of different races, was strictly forbidden by the Motion Picture Production Code. By the late 1960's, when Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was released, the Code was on its deathbed. This tale of interracial romance was couched as a comedy and was seen as 'topical' and 'important'. Time has diluted some of its power, and while I've offered my review of the film I think it might be interesting to explore the politics of the film itself.
A summary of the plot is simple: Joey Drayton (Katherine Houghton), daughter of liberals Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Houghton's real-life aunt, Katherine Hepburn) wants to marry Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). The complication comes from the fact that Dr. Prentice is black and Joey or Joanna (he always uses her formal name) is white. Everyone from the sassy maid to the Catholic monsignor who is their friend (despite the Drayton's apparent atheism) down to Dr. Prentice's parents put in their two cents about this perceived crisis until Matt Drayton, the man who is the most reluctant to give his blessings, finally says that all their views are unimportant. The only thing that matters is that John and Joanna are in love.
It seems serendipitous that Guess Who's Coming to Dinner came out the same year the Beatles sang All You Need is Love. Curiously, in the film Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway) quotes the Fab Four, but not this song, though to be fair I'm not sure exactly what song he quoted.
Damn hippie-dippy priest. Vatican II has a lot to answer for.
The hitch, if you want to call it that, in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is that the Draytons are liberals, who are supposed to be free of prejudice or at least claim to be. One can take issue with the suggestion that if the Draytons, Ryan, or even the Prentices were conservatives they would by default be bigots or reflectively object to interracial marriages. As liberals, they are expected to not just oppose racial discrimination but perhaps be color-blind, including in the affairs of the heart.
Having seen Guess Who's Coming to Dinner twice, I think that neither Christina or Matt Drayton were bigots, or that they were opposed to marriage due to race. The film may want to paint it that way, or suggest that race itself was the big issue for them. I didn't see it that way because they never expressed opposition due to Prentice's race. Truth be told, there were far better objections to their marriage divorced from the issue of race.
What I saw instead was that the Draytons did not so much object to their daughter's fiancee's race as they were concerned for their daughter's future as well as that of any grandchildren. They were, I think, concerned that Joey was either too far naive or far too dismissive of any issues that revolved around interracial romances/marriages.
Joanna seemed completely oblivious to the fact that society as a whole still wasn't accepting of such relationships, down to it still being illegal in 17 states at the time. She truly didn't comprehend that her falling in love with a 'Negro' would shock anyone (her word, which along with 'colored' were acceptable at the time). When it came to children, she figured all their biracial children would grow up to be President of the United States despite the fact that the Voting Rights Act was only two years old.
In a case of unintended foreshadowing, a biracial son of a black doctor and a white mother who met in Hawaii did grow up to become President of the United States. However, if John Wade Prentice III grew up to think like Barack Hussein Obama II, he would have called Christina Drayton "a typical white person" almost deathly afraid of any black person coming her way.
Even among liberals, you can apparently be in favor of interracial marriages and still harbor racial prejudice. Go figure.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was meant to be a 'message' picture, where the issue of race was addressed and the message that prejudice was bad. It's certainly a good message and well-delivered, but parts of the film were not.
As I watched the film, what I thought of the first time I thought again: Dr. Prentice can do much better than Joanna Drayton. She frankly wasn't good enough for him.
I thought Joanna an idiot, a ninny who was almost infantile in her worldview. The film wants to present her as totally free of prejudice and bigotry as a result of her liberal upbringing, but what it ends up having is a totally unrealistic character.
In many ways, Joanna comes across as a child delighting in her newest toy, that toy being John. She's very proud of him, showing him off to everyone she comes in contact with. She displays him as almost a 'model Negro', which in many ways eases his entry into the upper echelons of the Drayton world (something I'll touch on later). She tells the family maid Tillie (Isabelle Sanford) that John is the same skin tone as Tillie, and that since she loves Tillie, her de facto Mammy, why can't she love John too. I leave it up to smarter people to try and explain to our dear little girl the difference between familial and erotic love.
She may not see John as a toy, but to my mind, he may be a sort of plaything to her, someone whom she can enjoy showing off to everyone; it seems extremely strange for John, especially since he's fourteen years her senior, to not at any point sit her down and tell her that they will face hurdles. He seems to almost cower to Joanna's worldview, to go along with her idyllic notions of a post-racial society. He does tell her parents that if they object to the marriage, he won't go through with it, but does so in private. Him doing so, to me, shows he's not willing to confront Joanna about her unrealistic attitude about society's views, wrongheaded though they may be.
Curiously enough, while he is willing to give up the woman he loves should the Draytons object, he certainly won't give her up if his own parents, the Prentices, should object. Again, I leave it up to readers to explain why the Draytons could have veto power over his love life, but the Prentices don't.
From the moment she tells her older fiancee that 'there's no problem', we see that Joanna lives in an alternate universe.
In a sense, she's right: there is no problem with their relationship. The question isn't whether their relationship is wrong (it isn't) or even how society at large will view it. It's in her insistence that they won't face any problems in that society. Their children could grow up to be Presidents, but they will also face taunts from children and sadly, from adults. Their children will also be asked to 'identify' themselves and may question who or 'what' they are. They might not be welcomed in certain parts or locations. Her stubbornness in not seeing that there are issues connected to her marriage is extremely irrational.
Note I said issues, not problems, for there is a difference. There is nothing wrong with their relationship. Their relationship, however, will cause them and any children to come across uncomfortable even painful situations, and Joanna's insistence that it won't makes her a ninny.
For a film that prides itself on being progressive, it's curious that the only person who genuinely objects to the relationship based on race is John's father. Everyone else, to my memory, is concerned over the effects of the romance. John, Sr. is upset about the romance itself. If anyone is genuinely prejudiced against Joey and John, it's the elder Prentice. Even that, however, is not because he hates whites but because he thinks it is somehow wrong for two distinct races to be that intertwined.
As much as John, Jr. may react strongly against his father's views, I think it is unfair to Mr. Prentice to have his views so casually, almost cruelly dismissed. Mr. Prentice is a retired mailman, a position that I figure provided well for his family and one that pushed them to middle-class. I figure Mr. Prentice endured much prejudice and bigotry in his life (I can imagine that he could go only so far at the Postal Service even if his abilities could have moved him further up). He could achieve only so much, he endured so much, and now comes his more educated and wealthier son to lecture him about race.
Something about that just didn't sit right with me. Mr. Prentice had, I imagine, a lifetime of experiences where he faced overt prejudice, perhaps far more than his wealthier son, who could use his money, position, and prestige to shield him and his future children from more overt and uglier acts of bigotry. Mr. Prentice was of the generation that could have been Emmett Till. Dr. Prentice was of the generation that could have been Dr. Martin Luther King.
The fact Dr. Prentice can lecture his father about how he sees himself as 'a man' versus 'a colored man' seems to me slightly unfair to Mr. Prentice. John, Sr. may see himself as 'a colored man', but society hasn't given him much chance to live as anything other than 'a colored man' whatever his own wishes and views on that may be.
I think that in the end, what could make the Draytons, and by extension white audiences, accept Dr. Prentice into the family is not so much race but class. While the film bills itself as tackling race, in essence it gives the Draytons, and by extension, white audiences, a lovely way out of any perceived intolerance and an ability to bypass racial prejudice.
The Draytons and Dr. Prentice are both members of the same class, where they are all one color: green.
Much has been written and said about the perfection of Dr. Prentice, and there is truth to that. He is not just a doctor, but one who teaches and works for the World Health Organization. He is, to quote then-Senator Joe Biden's words on then-Senator and Democratic rival Barack Obama, 'bright, articulate, and clean'. He is deliberately and intentionally perfect: calm, non-threatening, elegant, articulate, charming, virtuous sexually to being almost virginal (no sex before marriage despite the hot-to-trot Joey, no pesky ex-wife or clinging child) and he looks like Sidney Poitier, no slouch in the attractive department.
He's like the black Mary Poppins: practically perfect in every way. Who seriously would object to Sidney Poitier as a son-in-law?
However, I think what would make Dr. Prentice non-objectionable is that he is, well, rich. Little Joey ain't going to marry a mailman himself. She isn't even going to marry the son of a mailman. She's going to marry a doctor, a posh, elegant, elite, well-respected, well-traveled, and best of all, wealthy doctor.
It's not as if Joey is going to marry Huey Newton. If she had found a black man who was either a committed revolutionary, even Marxist that went beyond the Draytons' comfortable limousine liberal worldview, or someone who drove said limousine, I figure Matt and Christina would have not been so welcoming to their future son-in-law.
She is going to marry a bourgeois, elite, essentially upper-crust member of society. There is nothing militant or angry about Dr. John Wade Prentice, Junior. Joanna's choice of partner may have been a break from her race, but she didn't break from her own class. Looking at it now, her choice of the ever-posh Dr. Prentice is almost as controversial as if she had chosen a Dr. Lowenstein or Dr. Gupta or Dr. Aranetti or Dr. Hassan or even a Dr. Garcia, with perhaps only a Dr. Cheng proving out of the mainstream.
As a side note, I think sexual relations between an Asian and an Anglo were specifically illegal in California for decades, being repealed (if Wikipedia is to be believed, in 1948, when Joey would have been four years old).
If she had fallen in love with a Jew, an Indian, an Italian, a Hispanic, an Arab or even an Asian, it might have raised eyebrows, but again with the possible exception of an Asian so long as he came from a good family and was able to support Joey in a manner which she had grown accustomed to, what legitimate objection could they or anyone have?
Joanna, for all her protests of love, still did not go outside her class. As such, she kept within the bounds of her circle, liberal as they might be.
It's curious that Christina and Matt say they didn't expect that Joanna would choose a 'colored person' as someone to fall in love with. That suggests, at least to me, that despite their liberalism, they really didn't know any black people outside of Tillie, making them in a sense as insular as Joey.
I'd like to explore this notion of class versus race a bit more. I wonder if she had chosen someone who was not from a well-respected bourgeois family like the Prentices, but someone who was poor. What if Joey had come home to tell her parents she was marrying Tillie's son? Would they then be more inclined to be joined in family with their maid?
Perhaps that depends on what kind of person Tillie's son is. If he was like John: polite, respectful, noble, they might not object to his personal qualities. However, what if he were poor and in a sense, 'not one of their own'? What if he could promise Joey nothing but a minimum wage salary to live off, in a less-than-reputable part of town, rather than the posh mansions she has known? Would it then matter that Tillie's son would take Joey down from upper to lower class?
That is something Guess Who's Coming to Dinner will not answer, because for all intents and purposes, Joey did not go against expectations because while she wants to marry outside her race, she is staying firmly within her own class. Money, perhaps, papers over pesky details like pigmentation.
As I see it, Dr. Prentice is an ideal candidate for Joey beyond his own qualities. He is not a radical change from the other boys that courted her apart from his race. He may be black, but he's rich. Joey won't be slumming it anytime soon.
She also won't be joining any revolutionary moments, no Patty Hearst Moments for our little Joey. John is as square as they come. Tillie may think John is 'getting above himself', but from the Drayton viewpoint, having a wealthy son-in-law who won't talk to them about 'revolution' or 'reparations', let alone express admiration for the Black Panthers, is ideal. They can be even more liberal, showing off their new son-in-law like a toy, congratulating themselves on how open-minded they are, so long as Prentice doesn't upset the cart by being cognizant or verbal of the still-deep racial divides.
He is still good, but he's also able to be in their socioeconomic circle and won't leave it.
The class divide I think would have been a harder bridge to cross than the racial divide. For the differences between John and the Draytons, he is also 'one of them', who can fit into their circle not because they are more accepting of him as a black man, but because he is a wealthy and cultured man.
I could find much to object to with regards to Joanna and John's marriage: the fact she's fourteen years younger and the fact they've known each other for just ten days. Those to me is more scandalous than whether John and Joanna are different races. As I've said, unless she's pregnant (and his refusal to sleep with her shows she isn't), I don't understand what the rush to marriage is. I would not like my daughter essentially rushing off to marry someone who she wants to sleep with within two weeks of knowing him. The fact he's almost a decade-plus older than my daughter is also not something I find endearing.
I don't want my version of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner to turn into Lolita.
For me, in the final analysis to quote a phrase, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is slightly disingenuous. Joey's parents don't object to a marriage because he is black. At the most, they might object to it being rushed, and might be concerned that their daughter is not being realistic about the difficulties she and her intended will face.
For me, I still think it is not race but class that would be the hurdle for the Draytons. Had John been more Malcolm X than Marcus Welby, or had John been a pharmacist's assistant than a WHO assistant director flying about the world, the Draytons might have been less welcoming if not perhaps downright opposed.
If he were white but poor, I think the Draytons would have reacted more sharply than if he were black, period. Their liberalism would go only so far: black they could deal with, poor they could not.
I also still think Dr. Prentice can do much better than Joanna Drayton. I'd tell him to drop that ninny and find himself a woman worthy of him, not that simple-minded, bubble-headed twit.