Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner – #stillshot

In #stillshot, Features, FILM, THEATRE & TV, HOME by Hannah Oliver

#stillshot features a frame from the moving pictures that grace our screens, and occasionally their promotional campaigns. We want to spark discussion on the visual art of film, and the world it negotiates often within a single still. Also, ‘cause there’s some well purdy viz-art shots to be dissected out there.

6I admit straight away that I’m approaching this particular installment of #screenshot with a vendetta. Don’t worry, it’s not the kind that will lead to me signing off with ‘xoxo – Gossip Girl’ – I have benevolent intentions.  Hopefully, once you’ve finished reading I will have convinced you into watching one of my favourite films of all time. It is a film of which I think few people reading this article will have heard but which I believe, in light of recent events, to be just as thought provoking today as it was upon its release in 1967.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner follows the developments of one day that take white, middle-class Matt and Christina Drayton from anticipating a quiet dinner at home to entertaining their future in-laws. The film opens with the Draytons’ young daughter Joanna returning unexpectedly from holiday with a fiancé in tow, following a whirlwind romance. Aside from being an internationally respected doctor, John Prentice quickly proves to be both honourable and respectful. There is only one thing that prevents him from being a perfect son-in-law in the Draytons’ eyes; John is black. The film follows the attempts by both sets of parents to come to terms with their child’s choice of future spouse and the self-interrogation this provokes.

This film was a controversial effort from director Stanley Kramer and writer William Rose, considering the political and social situation of the late sixties, when it was released However, you’re probably thinking ‘Hey, Christian, this is 2015. What is so thought provoking about a film featuring an inter-racial couple?’ But that’s not the angle I’m going for here, and it wasn’t Rose and Kramer’s either.

The creators of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner could expect that those people who went to see the film would mostly be those who already believed in equality of all races and did not need to be convinced of this fact. Their awareness of their audience is shown in Rose and Kramer’s portrayal of a rather different and more challenging message than simply ‘inter-racial marriage is O.K.’ This is not a film that focuses on the struggles of John and Joanna. The viewer is shown from the opening scene onwards that they are devoted to each other and left in no doubt that their marriage will be a happy one.

The real focus of the plot lies with Matt and Christina Drayton and a problem of their own creation. As moral, liberal parents, they quite rightly raised Joanna to understand that racist people were “sometimes hateful, usually stupid, but always, always wrong”. Joanna has absolutely no qualms with the concept of racial equality and is honestly surprised when her parents are less than thrilled by her choice of fiancé. The central point of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is its challenge to those who would already consider themselves anti-racist. Matt and Christina are unexpectedly forced to confront their underlying prejudices and practice what they preach or risk losing their daughter.  The reality of supporting racial equality is suddenly proved to be more than simply saying that racism is wrong.

Sadly, even fifty years on from the film’s release, this is still a message that provokes consideration. Although in 2015 most sane people would, like Matt and Christina, readily say ‘Racism of any kind is wrong’, this is different from actively supporting and promoting racial equality. In light of the recent, horrific events in places like Ferguson, the world-wide protests that took place in reaction and even the whitest Oscars since 1998, we cannot in all honesty say that any of us live in a society that truly practices racial equality. I don’t know about you, but I am both stunned and ashamed that a film made in 1967 can still make an effective comment on the state of race relations today.

However, the message of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a hopeful one. As I said, we are left in no doubt that the marriage of John and Joanna will be one of equally loving partners. The two younger characters represent a promising future. Joanna truly does not consider race as a factor in her relationships and will not be held back by the prejudices of others. One of the most effective moments in the film is John’s pronouncement to his father that “You think of yourself as a coloured man. I think of myself as a man.”  Nevertheless, as we are shown, we must learn to act by our morals, like the parents in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, or risk losing a bright future, as personified by John and Joanna.

I chose this particular frame from the film because I feel it displays the dilemma facing Matt and Christina and their attitudes towards it. Looking out into the garden where Joanna and John are laughing together, Christina appears hopeful and proud that her daughter “is just exactly the way [they] brought her up to be”. Matt, a little behind Christina both in the frame and in attitude, looks apprehensive and not altogether pleased by the situation. They are being provided with a vision of the ideal future that John and Joanna represent and it’s up to them to decide how they’ll fit into it; whether they’ll support what they always claimed to support or whether they’ll stand in its way.

Even aside from its critical and responsibly portrayed message, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is an exceptional film. The strong performances delivered by an excellent cast seamlessly combine comedy and drama.  Honestly, this film is worth watching just to see Katharine Hepburn’s character deliver to a racist colleague one of the most beautifully crafted verbal smack-downs I have ever witnessed.

As if you needed further convincing: it also features Sidney Poitier shirtless.

You’re welcome.

Christian Brinsden

Christian is a Classical Studies student at St Andrews. When she’s not attempting to be productive in the library, Christian is likely to be found giving dramatic renditions of Disney songs whilst cooking.

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