The first clue to the political stance of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) is the song with which the film opens: "The Glory of Love," written by Billy Hill in 1936. The key lyrics are
You've got to give a little, take a little,
And let your poor heart break a little.
That's the story of, that's the glory of love.
Giving and taking, the notion of mutual understanding and cooperation, are keys to the basic message of the film—we all need to learn to get along. And in the end, it's fun to try.
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner is dated and old-fashioned. It had good though cautious intentions. In attempting to promote its lessons of racial equality and harmony it didn't want to bruise anyone's sensibilities, nor did it want to offend. The result is a bland entertainment with good and bad moments.
Despite what people might argue in 2008, this film was probably more daring and controversial in 1967 than it seems today. Its message in 1967, when many Americans had reached the conclusion in principle at least that racial equality was a good thing, was that principles don't mean much if you can't apply them to real human situations. That is the challenge the parents in the film face when their beautiful and naïve young daughter comes home with a fiancé whom she met ten days before in Hawaii and who just happens to be black. His name is Dr. John Wade Prentice (Sidney Poitier). Hers is Joey Drayton (Katherine Houghton).
Joey's father, Matt Drayton, played by Spencer Tracy, is a well known San Francisco newspaper editor known for his crusading liberalism. He keeps a picture of Franklin Roosevelt on his desk. Although he believes in racial equality, he fears his daughter and her fiancé will face so many difficulties as a biracial couple that he opposes their marriage. On the other hand, his wife Christina (Katherine Hepburn), quickly concludes that love conquers all, and she supports the marriage. Prentice's parents take a similar position—the father (Roy Glenn) opposes the marriage, while the mother (Beah Richards) supports it. She suggests to Matt Drayton at one point that he is against the marriage because he has forgotten what it means to love a woman. Harsh words, these, and they inject an element of romanticism into a film that is already suffused with a romantic view of human relations. Women in this film represent romanticism while men stand for rational practicalities.
The film is full of contradictions. We understand well enough that the film really does promote the cause of racial equality and really does present the idea of marriage between John and Joey in a positive light. Yet there are caveats both obvious and not so obvious. Black people are both colored people and Negroes. Poitier plays not just any old black man. He is a wealthy and accomplished medical doctor known all over the world. He speaks with an articulate theatrical accent that makes him sound more like Rex Harrison than anyone else, and he scolds his father for being comfortable as a black man rather than as a "man." The only element that makes Poitier's character black is his skin. There's nothing average or typical about him. Although he and Joey clearly love each other, he tells Joey's father that he will not marry his daughter if her parents don't approve. Joey's parents—the white girl's parents--have to approve. What about his parents?—he doesn't show a similar concern for their wishes. We are also told that although Joey says she wanted to sleep with John, he refused her because "it wouldn't be right." Dr. Prentice is the ubermensch.
Tillie, the Drayton's black maid (Isabell Sanford), speaks with a heavy stereotypical African American accent. She sullenly disapproves of the match and says so whenever she has the opportunity. She believes Prentice is trying to rise above his place by marrying a white girl. Tillie behaves in a comical, stereotypical way that wouldn't be out of place in a film from the 1930s. Her daughter, on the other hand, is an attractive girl of the 1960s who accepts a ride with a delivery boy—they dance in what the film wants us to believe is an ultra cool and beat fashion out of the house and into a delivery truck. This is supposed to represent the youth generation of the 1960s—spontaneous and cool and full of free-form energy--whoever came up with the idea of having these characters dance out of the house had not spent much time with young people of the 1960s because that is not how young people of the 1960s acted—except maybe in films like this one or in Elvis movies or in Love American Style.
Of the characters with the strongest reservations about the marriage, two are black (Tillie and John Prentice's father) and one is white (Matt Drayton). Rather than either of the black characters, it is Drayton who comes to his senses and decides that the marriage must go forward, whatever the reservations. In his final speech, he speaks reprovingly to Tillie about her objections and suggests that John's father will eventually see the error of his thinking. A white man's enlightenment brings resolution to the film—not a black man's. This is, after all, essentially a film about white people reacting to and dealing with the reality of racial equality—it is about black people who have risen above their historically traditional station and are challenging the dominance of whites. It is not a film told from a black perspective, though, admittedly, we do hear the opinions of Tillie the maid (difficult to take seriously) and of Prentice's retired mail carrier father—both opinions are out of synch with the times.
The cinematic techniques in the film are old-fashioned: much of the film looks as if it were shot on a stage. When characters drive in a car, you recognize the artificial background moving behind the car.
Joey Drayton herself is not especially astute. Instead of a character whose personality and intellect reflect the strength of her convictions—her desire to marry a black man whatever others might think—she comes across as blithe and carefree, unaware of or indifferent to the controversy her marriage might create, indifferent to the fact that--her fiancé's race aside--she met him just ten days before the time of the film, unaware that her demand that her parents give their approval to the marriage in a matter of hours so that she can leave with Prentice for Europe might be impractical as well as insensitive. She's a dimwit ninny. Prentice himself actually expresses some reservations about the marriage, but they are lost in the hubbub and take us nowhere. He's fairly timid. His resolve becomes stronger only as he encounters opposition from Drayton and from his father and from Tillie. The only time he actually stands up for himself is in an argument with his father, where he criticizes his father for thinking of himself as a black man rather than as a man.
In Guess Who's Coming to Dinner youthful passion and love conquer all—parental opposition, social prejudice, poor timing, and so on. This film's heart is in the right place, but it's a film of no particular urgency or intelligence and it has a way of evading the real issues rather than confronting them. It suggests that both blacks and whites must recognize the need for change—this is a valid point. But it ignores the fact that racial problems in America have been generated mostly by the actions and attitudes of white people, who have helped create the environment that has traditionally made it difficult for people of different races who want to live their lives together.