Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner isn’t quite what one might expect it to be. At first glance, it seems to be the story of a white girl (Joanna) who wants to marry an African American, but faces resistance. There is an element of that. As the film progresses, however, it becomes clear that the story isn’t about her.
There’s a moment in the film when a preacher jokes to Sidney Poitier’s character John, Joanna’s fiance, “So you’re the problem?” Quite contrarily, the conflict in the story is all started by Joanna when she decides they should get married right away, but the fact that she starts the conflict does not necessarily mean that the story is about her. At virtually every point in the story where Joanna does something significant, she pushes the other characters into conflict while remaining out of it herself. She is a device that turns on at various points in the plot to make it more turbulent, and then leaves.
That being said, she’s more than just a device: she’s also the future. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn’s characters have spent years working towards making the world into their ideal – an ideal without any racism whatsoever – and they are presented with that ideal (and its ramifications) in the form of their daughter. It is then up to them to see how they cope with living in the ideal future they say they’ve always wanted.
In short, the story is about the residents of the past trying to make way for a future that, in some respects, rejects them. The scene at the ice cream shop is crucial to the film because, while not necessarily directly related to the plot, it shows us one of the key conflicts in the film that had, until then, been very difficult to see. Tracy is lost in a world he doesn’t know anything about, constantly making a fool of himself, and upsetting people even when he means well. The teenagers praise a young man who calls him out and takes him down a peg just because the youth of the time wanted to see the future overthrow the past – they wanted to see progress – and they couldn’t see Tracy, an old white man, as anything but a symbol of the past and regression. Tracy’s character, in spite of all of his progressive writings, appears to the world to be the embodiment of regression, and the story shows his journey as he tries to becomes something more than this image.
But the story is about more than this. It is also about the concerns John and his family have about this marriage. This is where Joanna’s character becomes more of a complicated character to read than she appears to be at first. She’s not quite the representation of the opposite of racism, or at least not the representation of the “ideal liberal” by today’s standards. She essentially falls into the category of people who “don’t see race,” which the film subtly reveals has its own problems: by not seeing race, she lacks perspective. There’s a lot about John’s family and their concerns that she isn’t taking into account, and her ignorance in this regard is a large part of what makes the story so messy and intense by the conclusion.
This conclusion, of course, is a powerful one. Because the film’s ending consists of Spencer Tracy giving a long, fairly predictable speech, a lot of people found the film too preachy for their tastes, but I don’t see it that way. This film takes it as a given that interracial marriage is perfectly fine – it has no need to preach that message – so the speech at the end is clearly about how these characters must come to terms with making a scary change. John and Joanna are making a decision that, in the 1960s, would not come without its consequences, and that’s a lot for their parents to handle. Watching the parents come to support their children, however, is truly one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen on film. It may have brought a tear to my eye.
Obviously, this movie is imperfect, and it has aged strangely. It’s progressive on one front, while still feeling fairly old-fashioned in regards to the treatment of the gender norms. Some critics at the time said it actually wasn’t doing enough since its cause was “old news” – the laws were already changing in favor of interracial marriage at the time when it was released, so the film showed a change that was already happening rather than effecting change.
I think that the best way to look at the film, then, is as a time capsule – it presents the ways in which many Americans were working through the social issues of the time, and it presents them excellently. The story is excellent, the dialogue is excellent, the casting is excellent, and even the visual storytelling is excellent. It’s brilliant craftsmanship makes it a delight for the cineaste, and its emotional appeal makes it a thrill for anyone else. It may not be up-to-speed on the tenets of 21st-Century liberalism, but in its own way, it’s still quite beautiful, and I love it.