Friday, October 28, 2022

Guess Who’s Getting Out

Back in 1967, when I was evolving into a movie nerd, one of the nation’s most popular films was a romantic fable introducing the then-bold idea that an interracial marriage could succeed. The film, of course, was Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Its director was Stanley Kramer, known and respected for such hard-hitting work as The Defiant Ones and Judgment at Nuremberg. Its stars were Hollywood legends Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy (who finished shooting his role a mere 3 weeks before he died), along with Sidney Poitier, America’s favorite Noble Negro. Everyone involved knew that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was essentially a fairy-tale, in which all potential social difficulties are swept away by a burst of good feelings, culminating in Tracy and Hepburn joyously celebrating their daughter’s engagement to a man of color. (The plan is for the young couple to spend their married life in Africa, where Poitier’s doctor-character is engaged in doing serious humanitarian work, so that their probable difficulties in building a life in an American suburb are neatly sidestepped.)

 Though the film roused in some Americans a great deal of anger (including death threats directed at Kramer and his family), most the country applauded it. It was nominated for ten Oscars, including Best Picture, in a strong movie year, and won two, including a statuette for William Rose’s sentimental but serviceable screenplay. This hardly meant it impressed the intellectuals (of various colors) on both coasts. James Baldwin, for one, quipped, that “as concerns Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, we can conclude that people have the right to marry whom they choose, especially if we know that they are leaving town as soon as dinner is over.” But a columnist from America’s heartland, Bill Donaldson of the Tulsa Tribune, sagely put the film into historical perspective: “It could not have been successfully released nationally five years ago; it will be hopelessly out of date five years hence.”

 It took not 5 but 38 years for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner to be updated into a laugh-out-loud comedy starring Bernie Mac as a frazzled dad reacting to the surprise of meeting his daughter’s intended (Ashton Kutcher). By 2005, a mildly-humorous social problem play with an uplifting ending had morphed into a farce, with the focus on the Black father’s awkward stabs at accepting a white son-in-law-to-be. The film was a box-office hit, but not exactly Oscar bait.

 Then came 2017, when Jordan Peele burst onto the scene with Get Out, which I believe is the first time the basic situation of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was turned into a horror film, as seen from an African-American point of view. I didn’t check out this film immediately upon its release. When I did watch it on video, all the buzz insured that I pretty much knew what was coming. (What a shame that we so rarely approach horror films in a state of total ignorance: imagine encountering Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde if you had no idea of the relationship between the two men!) Still, in Peele’s film there were a few perverse plot twists I hadn’t anticipated, along with some logic questions I couldn’t help asking. Recently, I watched Get Out again, after being told it’s the rare film that’s so craftily written that it contains no extraneous parts. Quite true, as I’ve discovered: some seemingly random characters and bits of dialogue turn out to be totally essential. Just keep your eye on that central relationship, and discover that the guest who’s coming to dinner may be welcome for all the wrong reasons.





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