It’s Not Simply Black and White: Onscreen mixed-race romances (sort of) grow up

It’s Not Simply Black and White: Onscreen mixed-race romances (sort of) grow up

Film Journal International

Simi Horwitz, Cultural Reporter/Features Writer
New York, New York

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, now celebrating its 50th anniversary, was not the first film to deal with an interracial love story, though it was the first to present “the issue” in the starkest terms. To wit: An exemplary son-in-law—a well-mannered, well-spoken doctor with a stellar future who happens to be black—sparks feelings of profound equivocation for the girl’s parents, otherwise the most fair-minded, tolerance-spewing champions one can imagine. The good doctor refusing to marry her at all without their blessing only makes it worse. He is a paradigm of virtue but still an African-American, and his race defines him.

At the height of the Civil Rights movement, the Stanley Kramer film was a controversial groundbreaker. The brilliant casting didn’t hurt: Sidney Poitier as the romantic lead, Dr. John Prentice, with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn as old-time liberals Matt and Christina Drayton, whose daughter Joey (Hepburn’s real-life niece Katharine Houghton) is engaged to Prentice.

Naturally, it all ends happily enough (Did I mention it’s a comedy?), with Tracy delivering a long, very long speech asserting that love is what matters and while the young couple will face obstacles in a bigoted world, they must get married. To fly in the face of their love is a violation and morally wrong.

The film’s treatment of race relations is clearly dated. Not coincidentally, its depiction of women is also thesis-worthy, let alone its portrait of a black housekeeper (Isabel Sanford, years before “The Jeffersons”) who embodies a host of racial, gender and class stereotypes. Enraged and horrified at the prospect of Joey marrying a black man, she sputters, “Civil Rights are one thing. But this is something else.”

Still, it was a bellwether, landing an Oscar nomination for Best Picture and winning its screenwriter William Rose a statuette…

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