We Never Told Her Not To: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”and subtle Racism

I’ll say it, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” is a sinfully ignored jewel of a movie. While the movie techniques may be dated, the story has just as much power today as it did when it came out. This 1960’s movie tells the story of young Joey Drayton (Katharine Houghton) who was raised by her socially progressive parents to see the equality among the races. Having come to truly believe this equality, Joey falls in love with the eminent African American doctor John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) and brings him home to her parents as her new fiancé. To avoid too many spoilers, suffice it to say that the remainder of the movie unwraps internal and external conflicts as both of the young lovers’ families wrestle with the reality of the impending marriage as it draws out the social reality of racism in all its subtle dangers.

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I’ll be honest, when I first sat down to watch a movie about an interracial couple in the 1960’s, I was expecting an intense, explosive drama of anger and bitterness. So, I was fascinated with the surprising lightheartedness within which this movie begins. But then the harder reality hit me; despite the lighthearted nature of the movie, racism was there. Joey’s parent treated John with nothing but respect, showing no signs of assumed superiority for being white; in fact you really have to admire their kindness and openness in this movie. Nonetheless, there was a something deeper which gnawed at them when faced with their daughter’s dark-skinned fiancé. The nature of the parents’ conflict was summarized in a quick note by Joey’s mother (Katharine Hepburn) who stated that while they raised Joey to not see herself as superior for being white they “never told her not to marry a Black boy.” It is in this internal, and repressed conflict that the movie makes its point: racism may have become more subtle, but it is still there.

Furthermore, the presence of this subtle racism is paired with the dangerous obliviousness of Joey’s character. When broken down, much of the conflict in this movie is driven by the fact that Joey is completely unaware that racism is a reality. It appeared that the thought had never crossed Joey’s mind that her parents would have a problem with her black fiancé and would need to be handled gently. Instead of being a liberating and refreshing presence, Joey simply served to stir up the problems that were already there. There was nothing good that came from Joey being oblivious.

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In the end, these two points form the meaning of the movie. Despite what the progressive thinkers thought in the 60’s (or what we might think now), racism is still inside man, it may just be more subtle. Mankind has made amazing progress in this for sure, but the relational brokenness inside him still causes division. The solution, then is not to simply assume everything is good, but to take time to reflect on what remnants of bigotry may remain within us and address them. All in all, this movie shows the dangers of being Oblivious and forces the viewer to ask: Do I have racism or relational brokenness inside of me that still needs to be addressed?

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2 responses to “We Never Told Her Not To: “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”and subtle Racism

  1. A helpful review of a movie I wouldn’t have chosen to watch before reading this. I guess the only thing missing from this review is the Christ-centered solution to the final question you posed.

    • Benjamin,

      Thanks for your feedback. I’m glad to hear the review has piqued your interest in this movie.

      I would love to discuss more about a Christ-Centered answer, but for now I was simply posing the question to get conversation going. I’m all ears if you have answers to propose.

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