Rated: 4 / 5
“A love story of today.” Well, maybe not so much anymore. Or maybe it is. This film has surprising relevancy to today, and I personally find that to be a bit sad.
So, in case you haven’t ever seen this movie, which I suggest you do considering I’ve given it a 4/5 score and my opinion is always right and better than everyone else’s, it’s a racially charged film. Yet it is subdued in how it tackles the racism issue. It’s not about violence between blacks and whites, niggers and crackers, oh no. It’s about them coming together. The legendary Sidney Poitier would be reason enough for me to want to see this, but the rest of the cast is as great as he is in this film. He plays a black doctor (specifying that just in case any of you mistakenly think he plays a white doctor) who has fallen for a white woman nearly 10 years his junior played by Katharine Houghton, who has likewise fallen for him. Nearly love at first sight, they decide to get engaged within the first 10 days of starting their relationship. But then it comes time to meet the parents.
Awkwardness ensues, and it provides some funny moments and dialogue. This film balances humor and drama perfectly, never going over-the-top for the sake of cheap laughs. But things get even more awkward when the daughter of the family, who clearly likes to rush into things obliviously and innocently, convinces the mother and father of her fiance to also come to the house to meet her family, unaware that there might be an issue with this.
The film shines with the dialogue and character interactions, which is all that is really needed for dramas like this. Seeing the mother’s reaction to seeing the boyfriend for the first time, the father’s delayed reaction, and the immediate reaction of the boyfriend’s parents to seeing that he has a white girlfriend. Such great hilarious (but never overdone) moments. Hell, even the black maid doesn’t hide her negative attitude towards the boyfriend, thinking that he’s only interested in the girlfriend because he wants to take advantage of her and her family’s wealth. Awkwardness is in abundance throughout this flick, yet it’s done in such a great way.
This isn’t one of those films where the parents (at least the white ones when they become aware of the issue) try to act polite for the sake of leaving things unsaid that cry out to be said. The dialogue that I would normally expect a film like this (especially by today’s standards) to only show up near the end of the film actually shows up near the beginning. Both sides admit the awkwardness of the issue, and are aware that this is different and daring for the time period (save for the girlfriend who was raised in such a way as to not think there would be any issue or awkwardness to be had with blacks and whites intermingling, which is ironic considering her parents raised her this way and admit to doing so, but mention to each other that, “We taught her to view negros as no different than whites, but we never told her not to marry one.”). The boyfriend doctor even has a private discussion about this with the parents laying it all on the table, letting them know he’s as aware of this awkwardness as they are. And the parents attempt to give this whole thing a chance. After all, the mother acknowledges that she’s never seen her daughter this happy before, and she can’t help but feel happy for her even though a part of her is against this. It made me wonder where the hell the film was going from there at that point, because this semi-acceptance tends to be where films like this usually end (or lack thereof, as was the case for the horror equivalent Get Out). But nope, it’s only just gotten started.
I mean, the father tries to be accepting, and we see him and his wife drive around town briefly discussing this and see the father’s temper start to boil as he becomes more and more irritable as time goes on and he lets other things get to him to make his anger rise even further; but it didn’t seem like enough to keep the film afloat during the rest of the runtime. Then we find out the boyfriend’s parents are coming over. At that point, I was on-board for the rest of the ride.
Another element I loved is that all the characters are portrayed with flaws, that no one is perfect, not even Sidney Poitier’s character (to my surprise). The mother, obviously easily prone to emotion and shock, though she does tend to take the more optimistic joyful route for channeling her emotions. The father, and old man he tends to be set in his old traditional ways, yet makes an effort to be accepting to that of the new ways. Which father and mother from which side of the family? Both actually. The parents on both sides are quite similar, despite the pigmentation differences and economic status (the white family being upper-class, the black family barely middle-class). This in part is what leads the white father to come to this realization near the end after having a private talk with the father and mother of the boyfriend, separately, which he acknowledges with the line, “I’ll be a son of a bitch.” The girlfriend, she’s naive and prefers to rush things without seeing the dangers as to why she should be more aware of how society would view an interracial relationship, let alone the dangers of rushing into something so life-changing so quickly, and is arguably too positive and optimistic. And the boyfriend, well, he has the issue of not wanting to do too much without the approval of opposing parties, even though he’s quite level-headed. I love this because if there’s anything I hate in movies, it’s seeing characters who are perfect when it comes to wisdom/knowledge/personality/attitude. It’s flaws that make them human, and humans are what we have in this film.
Earlier I mentioned the film has a relevancy to today that I find to be a bit sad. Now I’ll expand on that. Back during this tumultuous time period the film was made, the 1960s, that’s when black rights were all the rage, and when riots and clashes began that initiated the first major change and progression for the rights of black people since the end of the civil war in 1865. Films like this were bound to show up, and this isn’t the only one, nor even the only one that Sidney Poitier would star in (see In the Heat of the Night, also made in 1967, also highly recommended). Then there’s Night of the Living Dead in the following year of 1968. That’s at least 3 major hit classics people still watch today that tackle the issue of racism. Though in all fairness, Night of the Living Dead was primarily about how we’re our own worst enemy and we’ll tear each other apart even when there’s external forces out to destroy us; the racism aspect is subtle in that it’s not even mentioned, but it’s there, as that’s one of the aspects Americans were fighting over during that time period, and sadly, even so today. And all 3 films shared the same message, either we learn to live together in peace and harmony in spite of our difference, or suffer and be annihilated either from each other or something else that could’ve been beaten if only we weren’t killing ourselves. Well, 2 out of the 3 mentioned films went for the more optimistic route, so as they say, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad.
The relevancy can be seen in films like the aforementioned Get Out, and also in the more recent Detroit. The difference between films today and films back then (or at least regarding most films prior to 2012) is that films today tend to promote the message of, “We can’t get along, so may black power rule to offset the white power rule of the past,” rather than the past message of, “We can get along if we just get to know each other better and see that we’re all human.” And people wonder why some say the film industry is shitty these days. The interesting thing is though, this film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner has much of the advice and answers to the issues and questions of today, yet not enough people seem to be aware of this, and focus on the present where the answers and advice tend to be the wrong ones.
Consider this discussion between the boyfriend and his father during the latter half of the runtime:
“Have you thought what people would say about you? Why, in 16 or 17 States, you’d be breakin’ the law! You’d be criminals! And say they changed the law; that don’t change the way people feel about this thing!”
At least the 16 States remark is outdated by today’s standards, so we’ve got that going for us. But that last sentence is definitely something to consider. After all, the Southerners (primarily) didn’t hold much regard for the laws regarding black rights during the aftermath of the civil war (see Free State of Jones for a decent film highlighting this aspect, even if it ultimately promotes the white-guilt “racism is alive today” message). Hell, even making booze illegal didn’t stop people from making it and drinking it. And don’t even get me started on the drug war (even though it should be pointed out that giving drugs to gangs and cartels and making them rich enough to have private armies with top of the line equipment and weaponry should make people hesitant at the very least to try that stuff out). Changing the law is one thing, but you also have to get people to understand why it is that it’s being changed, and listen to their retorts which may or may not provide reasoning as to why the law shouldn’t be changed.
Next quote, with the son’s response to his dad:
“You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be! And not until your whole generation has laid down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs! You understand, you’ve got to get off my back!”
Scarily how relevant that line has become in the more recent years, except that most aren’t alive from the generation that dialogue refers to. Rather, the dead generation is being dug up from the grave and reanimated like some fucking zombie from a Romero film rather than remaining in the state of resting in peace. Something I’ve discussed in the past regarding how irrelevant and outdated this should all be, yet some in positions of power refuse to let the dead stay dead and bring it all back out in fashion like everyday should be Halloween so they can profit from this destructive merchandise they sell. And somehow this is being done while making it borderline taboo to sit down and have an honest discussion about racism, especially in regards to facts and statistics (but emotion is all the rage).
“You think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man.”
This is the ultimate message that should be pushed today, even though it angers/saddens/frustrates me that it’s even necessary to push such a message rather than it just being common sense. That no one, black or white, should be automatically associated with a race for the sake of stating they’re different, they’ve been treated different, and should thus be given different specialized treatment. No more than someone who voted for Trump should be automatically associated with neo-nazis, white supremacists, racists, Milo fan, Fox News fan, or anti-net-neutrality, no more than someone who didn’t vote for Trump (ie voted for Hillary or Jill Stein or Gary Johnson or some made up Barney the Dinosaur figure) is automatically associated with, well, the opposite of all that. Like how in this movie the black maid of the house associates the boyfriend with some shady black individuals she seems to have experience with from her own past. Individualism! Willing to hear the reasons as to why someone would do something someone would find outrageous and repulsive, or why someone would do something that goes against one’s own personal political beliefs. You know, like how everyone in the film (eventually) sat down and listened to the reasons why the black boyfriend and white girlfriend would want to marry each other, something that was also considered outrageous and repulsive during (and prior to) the 60s. Makes me wonder how people today would treat a film that’s just like this made today, only with the races reversed, having a white man wanting to marry a black woman and having both go to her parent’s home, and have the white man’s parents come over too, and see how things play out from there (that 2005 film Guess Who with Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac doesn’t count!).
“You listen to me. You say you don’t want to tell me how to live my life. So what do you think you’ve been doing? You tell me what rights I’ve got or haven’t got, and what I owe to you for what you’ve done for me. Let me tell you something. I owe you nothing!”
That’s another thing about today, people telling others how to live. Fine and good, but give good reasons, and not just some “living in the past” bullshit. Because while it is true that the past matters, the errors of the past shouldn’t be promoted as a reason to live a certain way today if those errors are easily rectified, or have already been rectified. But I’ve already spoken enough on why the past shouldn’t rule the present (and also why the past shouldn’t be forgotten as it has lessons to be remembered for today, a tricky line apparently that gets crossed too much in these recent years). But I will say this is a film that everyone today should watch and pay careful attention to. Not just because it’s a great classic film (though that would be reason enough), but also for the message it has. The lines of dialogue that provide answers to many of the racial issues that have unnecessarily spun up in our time. The positive message of coming together in spite of our differences.
With that in mind, I’ll leave this off on a final quote from the movie:
“Now Mr. Prentice, clearly a most reasonable man, says he has no wish to offend me but wants to know if I’m some kind of a *nut*. And Mrs. Prentice says that like her husband I’m a burned-out old shell of a man who cannot even remember what it’s like to love a woman the way her son loves my daughter. And strange as it seems, that’s the first statement made to me all day with which I am prepared to take issue… cause I think you’re wrong, you’re as wrong as you can be. I admit that I hadn’t considered it, hadn’t even thought about it, but I know exactly how he feels about her and there is nothing, absolutely nothing that you son feels for my daughter that I didn’t feel for Christina. Old- yes. Burned-out- certainly, but I can tell you the memories are still there- clear, intact, indestructible, and they’ll be there if I live to be 110. Where John made his mistake I think was in attaching so much importance to what her mother and I might think… because in the final analysis it doesn’t matter a damn what we think. The only thing that matters is what they feel, and how much they feel, for each other. And if it’s half of what we felt- that’s everything. As for you two and the problems you’re going to have, they seem almost unimaginable, but you’ll have no problem with me, and I think when Christina and I and your mother have some time to work on him you’ll have no problem with your father, John. But you do know, I’m sure you know, what you’re up against. There’ll be 100 million people right here in this country who will be shocked and offended and appalled and the two of you will just have to ride that out, maybe every day for the rest of your lives. You could try to ignore those people, or you could feel sorry for them and for their prejudice and their bigotry and their blind hatred and stupid fears, but where necessary you’ll just have to cling tight to each other and say “screw all those people”!”