Sometimes I get lucky when attempting my challenge of watching all films featured in the American Film Institute’s top 100 movies of all time like this weekend when just as I was wondering how I’m going to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon I came across a film which needed to be ticked off my list. Actually my brother came across it after trying to give a Danny Dyer and Martin Kemp flick a shot, but only lasting ten minutes before changing the channel (what did he expect it to be? A masterpiece?). ‘Guess who’s coming to dinner? (1967: AFI, 1998 #99) couldn’t be further away from a British gangster film set in the noughties. Firstly there is hardly any action and most of the movie takes place in one location, the house of Mr and Mrs Drayton played by arguably the greatest screen couple to have ever graced the silver screen; Spencer Tracy and the most successful female Oscar winner of all time (yup, even more successful than Meryl Streep, would you believe?) Katherine Hepburn.
Trailer for the 1967 Oscar winning movie ‘Guess who’s coming to Dinner?
Set in an affluent white upper middle class neighbourhood in San Francisco in the 1960s the story centres around the Drayton’s whose liberal tolerance gets tested when their daughter introduces them to her black fiancé played by Sidney Poitier – who is the first black actor to win an Oscar (although not for this role, but ‘Lilies in the Field). The plot is simple and hardly shocking by today’s standards, but for the time when racial tension in North America was at an all time high it was perhaps a surprise that Stanley Kramer’s movie was a critical and commercial success. Even more startling is that it was well received in the notoriously racist Southern States and released just a year before Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. There is even a scene where the family’s black maid Tillie who is clearly the most offended by the presence of Poitier sarcastically asks if “The Reverend Martin Luther King” is coming to dinner too?
The movie definitely deserves its spot on the AFI’s top 100 films of all time list – it highlights the deep rooted racial prejudices even the most tolerant people have. Kramer wanted to make Poitier’s character Dr. John Wayde Prentice Jr. flawless – he is well educated, respectful and does not believe in sex before marriage – he is a perfect suitor for Joey. The only that is preventing her parents from jumping for joy is that he is black.
The subject matter of this blockbuster is sadly relevant in today’s society. Even though interracial relationships are more common than ever there is a still a stigma attached to them. But naively I was under the impression that in the UK non-black ethnic minorities were the only group who still found it difficult introducing their families to their partner from a different background and that black and white people were better integrated. But after watching the British comedy ‘Chewing Gum (2015)’ I realised some black people found it hard tell their parents they were dating a white person as protagonist Tracey (no relation to Spencer) does throughout the first series. Perhaps roles are reversed and ethnic minorities are now the ones who seem to find it hard to accept other races into their families rather than just white people.
Although ‘Guess who’s coming to Dinner’ had the happy ending we liberal people of the Twenty-First Century hoped for I couldn’t help but feel sad knowing that this was Spencer Tracy’s last movie before his death – he died only two weeks after completing the film. So his heartfelt speech where he declares that he accepts the relationship is even more poignant as it feels this is farewell to his onscreen and real life lover Hepburn and to the world as he knew his time was drawing an end.
Spencer Tracy gives his memorable speech weeks before his death
Nevertheless the legacy of Tracy and his unforgettable character Mr Drayton still lives on; not only was his last role considered one of his finest he was also the inspiration for lovable Carl Fredricksen in Pixar’s classic animated ‘Up! (2009). For the exceptional characters and acting from the crème a La crème of Hollywood as well as the topic that is still a subject of conversation today – I give this flick 4.5 out of 5.
The movie can also be a useful tool to show to your parents before bringing someone home they may not approve off as suggested by my brother – I wonder who he’s planning on bringing home to meet the folks