Movie Review: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)
I am chagrined to say that I saw the awful, horrible 2005 remake of this classic prior to seeing the classic version. That attempt at humor (that was totally unfunny) thus had me coming at this film rather skeptically, but it was in my suggested films pile on Netflix, and given that I’d just finished up The Real Help Reading Project, I thought a classic 1960s film exploring the black/white issues in America just might be interesting. It certainly was not what I was expecting.
First, the cast is absolutely stellar, featuring Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Houghton, Spencer Tracy, Beah Richards, Cecil Kellaway, and Isabel Sanford. These people have serious acting chops, and I doubt a lesser cast could have pulled off this film. In particular, I cannot imagine another person in the role of the mother than Katharine Hepburn. Now THERE is an actress.
The film feels more like watching a dramatic play in three acts. There is a lot of dialogue and emotional speeches. It may feel a bit heavy-handed to the modern viewer, but it must be remembered the world this film was made in. One line really reminds the viewer, when the young couple are reminded that their relationship is still illegal in sixteen or seventeen states. Wow, ok, suddenly both sets of parents’ concern that their children are choosing an incredibly tough life for themselves doesn’t seem like such an over-reaction. It puts the whole film a bit more into perspective.
That’s what the film is really about. It isn’t about either set of parents being prejudiced against a skin color. They’re concerned that the prejudice of the world will make the marriage unbearable for their children. The movie is about choosing to stand up and hold on to the ones you love in the face of prejudice. That’s a powerful message and not at all the issue I was expecting to come to the surface in this film.
Now consider all of those to be reasons to watch this classic that’s a classic for a reason. I now want to talk about one character whose presence was totally different to me since doing The Real Help–that of the white family’s maid, Tillie. Tillie’s role seems to be that of reassuring the (white) audience that not just the white parents are concerned about this black man John. She immediately is in fisticuffs over the whole thing. She tells John, “I don’t care to see a member of my own race getting above himself. “ She threatens him that she knows his type and although he may be able to fool the white folks, he’s not fooling her. She even says, “Civil rights is one thing. This here is somethin else!” The daughter tells Tillie that she loves her and loving John is no different, and the parents even have her come sit down for the big finale stating that she’s “one of the family.” What is fascinating about this completely false and stereotyped role of Tillie in this film is that it is there in the midst of a forward thinking main plot. It is as if the filmmakers wanted to give the audience the familiar, non-threatening, stereotyped role of the trustworthy black help that is in favor of the status quo to help them feel more comfortable during the film. Perhaps that is the case. But even if the choice was deliberate and worked for the audience at the time, I personally found the role to be Tom-ing and distracting from the much better main storyline. However, it is also fascinating how a movie with a role like this *still* is better than The Help.
Overall, this is a classic deserving of the title. Although it is a bit dated, if the audience bares in mind the actual world of race and racism at the time the film was produced, they will be surprised at how progressive it actually was.
4 out of 5 stars