Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Movie Review: Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967)

     There once was a time when people thought that someone with dark skin was somehow inferior and less human.


I was going to put up an actual picture of the Klan, but they don't deserve that kind of consideration. So instead have this Blazing Saddles reference.

     Well, yes, racism is still very much a thing, which is why this movie is still so very relevant. Coming out right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, it rustled jimmies. It rustled many, many jimmies, and is in fact often uncomfortable to watch, not only because the attitudes seem so foreign to many people, but also because it reveals some wrong assumptions we all make.

     In this film, Matt Drayton and his wife get the surprise of their life when their daughter returns from Hawaii with a fiancé; a successful, charming doctor…who happens to be black. The double shock of this and the swiftness of the engagement floors them both. The couple fell in love at first sight, with the widowed and bereft Dr. Prentice clearly charmed and almost overwhelmed by Joey’s sunny and energetic disposition, who floats through the movie in a romantic haze (to use Matt Drayton’s phrasing).  Joey wants her parents’ blessing right away so she can fly to Geneva with Dr. Prentice. As the day goes on, with the Draytons trying to wrap their minds around what’s happening, everyone’s assumptions and beliefs, about others and themselves, are laid bare.

     Matt Drayton’s character is very intriguing. He is a Civil Rights Crusader, but he is also very aware of the immense difficulties the couple will face from society. Underneath all that are hidden racist tendencies that he knows are wrong, but arise subconsciously. I’ve heard it said that we unintentionally absorb messages from the society around us. Consciously, we may know what is right and may even give ourselves a congratulatory pat on the back, but sometimes assumptions run like a script through our minds. At one point in the film, after accidentally hitting a kid’s car, Drayton complains that he never saw so many black people in the city until that day! It is part of his character arc that he confronts those issues in his mind and wrestles with them (with the help of the possibly-drunk Irish priest). Similarly, at the end we suspect Dr. Prentice’s father will be undergoing the same struggle.

     That is another point in the movie that shows the complexity of these issues. Racism goes both ways, and not only is Mr. Prentice adamantly opposed to the match, so is the Draytons’ housekeeper. She is kind and loving toward Joey, but thinks Dr. Prentice is “getting above himself” in marrying her. She has absorbed society’s message that she is a lesser person, and looks on in disgust at both the main couple and at her assistant, who goes dancing out the door with the (white) delivery boy.

Very. Silly. Dancing.

     In the end, the two mothers, Mrs. Drayton and Mrs. Prentice, give voice to what people often forget. If Joey and Dr. Prentice truly love one another, they will be able to support each other through the most difficult times. Mrs. Prentice accuses Drayton of forgetting what it was like to be in love, and this is what brings him back to himself. In the end, the movie is not wholly happy-Mr. Prentice’s mustache still looks very disapproving, and all have acknowledged both the couple and any children they have are in for a fight; but they are ready for that fight.

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