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Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Forty Years Later

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Last week, the Cultural Discerners delved into U.S. film archives to re-consider (or, for many of us, consider for the first time) the classic Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, featuring Katherine Hepburn, Sydney Poitier and Spencer Tracy.  Though the film was ahead of its time in 1967, and may still convict a lot of white folks who ardently claim they’re not racist, the overall conclusion of the group was that the film generally did not stand the test of time.  We found ourselves having to forgive too many conventional flaws—overacting, flat characters, a stilted plot.  Even these things can be overlooked as leftovers from stage convention that made their way into many films at the time, but the film also seems to be ideologically flawed, then and now.  Though many, including some people of color, have tried on color-blindness as a solution to racism, the film is ultimately a film written by rich, white liberals for rich, white liberals.  Sydney Poitier says his classic line to his character’s father like he really means it: “You think of yourself as a colored man!  I think of myself as a man.”  But the emerging black power movement, and even those viewers of color who simply saw some kind of value in claiming their identities, must have been cringing in their seats.  The ultimate message—that love conquers everything, so let’s just ignore our racial differences—chafes against those who realize that addressing the problem of racism just isn’t that simple.  When white people promote the message that color doesn’t matter, they necessarily dismiss those for whom color does matter very much every day, whether they want it to or not.  Colorblindness is an advantage only the privileged can claim.  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner certainly opens up many venues of conversation, but viewers should be prepared to receive the film’s messages with a critical mind.