Essay


Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: America’s Sectional Divide and Generation Gap
The 1960s was a tumultuous decade for the Civil Rights Movement; in 1964 the Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination against blacks and women, in 1965 the Voting Rights Act outlawed disenfranchisement of African Americans, and in 1967 the landmark decision for Loving v. Virginia outlawed the ban on interracial marriage in sixteen Southern states[1].  From even before the Civil War period, America was split along the Mason-Dixon Line—the North was typically more supportive of African American rights, while the South was less forthcoming.  By the 1960s a century had passed since the Civil War, yet the sectional differences ensued. The North was more encouraging to grant African Americans voting rights and end racial segregation while the South pursued de facto segregation in order to stratify racial groups.  In addition to the continued sectional divide in America during the 1960s, a generation gap between the old and young served to divide age groups and cause friction between differing views.  While the older generation had grown up in times when little backlash against segregation existed, the youth of the 1960s were far more idealistic—strictly opposed to racism and segregation.  The mostly positive response to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) represented a greater acceptance of accomplished black figures like Sidney Poitier; however, the censorship and backlash against this film in certain areas, particularly the South, demonstrated a resistance to the changing sentiment about interracial marriage.  While response to the film highlighted a sectional divide on racial integration, the film itself challenged the generation gap—addressing whether the older generation would be able to reconcile differences in order to understand the idealistic values of the younger generation. 
Released in 1967 and directed by Stanley Kramer, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was debatably the most popular Hollywood film of the 1960s to have addressed the subject of interracial marriage, thus making it “a taboo-shattering comedy”[2].  In an excerpt about the film, Cynthia Young claimed that the film “sought to assuage white, liberal fears of racial integration and the widening generation gap”[3].  Indeed, the film chronicles a story of John (Sidney Poitier) and Joey (Katherine Houghton), an interracial couple who meet and fall in love while vacationing in Hawaii, and their subsequent attempts to convince their parents to accept the relationship.  In an interview with Roger Ebert at the Old Town Saloon, Kramer was quoted saying:
Hell, we deliberately made the situation perfect, and for only one reason, if you take away all the other motives for not getting married, then you leave only one question. Will Tracy forbid the marriage because Poitier's a Negro? That is the only issue, and we deliberately removed all other obstacles to focus on it.[4]
 While criticized for creating a “perfect” black character, Kramer had done so in order to keep racism at the heart of the film.  In his biography in the New York Times[5], he is noted for being “a bold producer/director of large-scale "message" films that reflected an enlightened liberal point of view”[6].  Thus, Kramer established his intentions for the film even before it had been released; to show Americans that even an old generation Matt (Spencer Tracy’s character) ,who had grown up in times when racism and segregation were rarely questioned—let alone protested, could accept a black son-in-law into his family.  Thus, he intended for the film to be a mirror in which America could see its intense racial prejudice and bigotry underneath the all-inclusive superpower it claimed to be[7]. 
 Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner heralded a positive response from various demographics for the Tracy-Hepburn duo lured audiences while Poitier’s charisma and good looks charmed those who came.  The audience’s encouraging response to Poitier’s acting showed a newfound comfort with black actors.  In 1967, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was nominated for ten Oscars and won two of those ten: one for Best Screenplay and the other for Best Actress (Katherine Hepburn)[8].  While controversial, the film was Columbia Pictures’ greatest success and the 11th highest grossing film of its time[9].  Debatably the greatest achievement of the film was Sidney Poitier’s celebrity status, for it showed that many white Americans were willing to accept black celebrities.  In America on Film, author Harry M. Benshoff claims that “Poitier’s dignified persona perfectly fit the ‘passive resistance’ strategy of the African American civil rights movement of the 1950s and early 1960s”[10].  While leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. had promoted non-violent protest to segregation, by the mid-1960s, protests by impatient youth groups often became violent.  Thus, to moviegoers, Poitier’s films represented those of the non-violent past while the new black films—known as “blaxpolitation”, involved violence, crime, and moral decay[11].  Although Southern cinema theaters often banned this crowd-pleaser, people of all demographics tried to watch the film- Northerners, even Southerners, those in ghettos, etc[12].  This positive response to the film not only broke racial barriers as Sidney Poitier became a high-profile celebrity, but served to show that people of all backgrounds were interested in a story of interracial marriage—though while some were supportive, others were not.   
Addressing interracial marriage was a radical change in both film and the social sphere, eliciting both violence and critical backlash.  Following the release of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, most movie theaters in the South banned the film for the illegal nature of its content because interracial marriage had not yet been legalized in sixteen southern states.  The ban on showing Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner represented Southern resistance to the North’s more liberal and progressive beliefs.  While the North had repealed anti-miscegenation laws years prior, Southerners considered interracial marriage a blasphemy, a “demongrelization of the white race”[13].  In addition, a Gallup poll taken in 1965 revealed that 72 percent of southern whites were opposed to interracial marriage compared to the 42 percent of northern whites[14].  While many Southerners were reluctant to accept the film, they were forced to come to terms with interracial marriage merely a few months later when the landmark decision for Loving v. Virginia outlawed the ban on interracial marriage in sixteen Southern states.  Not unlike Stanley Kramer, Earl Warren wanted to undermine de facto segregation, restrict powers of the state, and protect personal privacy through his decision to outlaw anti-miscegenation laws in the South[15].  Violence soon ensued after the release of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner; members of the Ku Klux Klan and ardent segregationists joined forces to resist the radical racial integration the film alluded to (and which Loving v. Virginia later made a reality).  According to a segregationist article in Atlanta, a magazine dedicated to exploring race relations, he claimed, “The Klan picketed these places with us.  We used to have slogans such as ‘niggers aren’t acting like colored folks’.  We picketed the movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and someone carried a sign that said, ‘Can’t she smell the difference?’ I chuckle at that”[16].  This intensely racist comment showed that the Ku Klux Klan’s overt picketing and violence was still present in the South and that many of these protests targeted the film and the its message of interracial equality.  The violence and backlash of both the Ku Klux Klan and critics represented a resistance to the changing American society that was more accepting of African American equality and interracial unions.
 Certainly whites were not the only group to critique the film, many blacks chimed in to criticize as well.  In an article in Times, Clifford Mason—an African American playwright—claimed “….taking on white problems and a white man’s sense of what’s wrong with the world…All this Mr. Poitier endures, and more, without a murmur of protest…In all of these films he has been a showcase nigger”[17].  While criticism and violence from Southern groups was indicative of a growing desire to resist racial equality and interracial marriage between blacks and whites, black backlash stemmed from a profound dislike of Poitier’s on-screen characterization as a desexualized hero whose background and personality were more similar to an upper-class white rather than a lower or middle-class African American[18].  Therefore, African Americans like Clifford Mason felt misrepresented by Poitier polished character.             
While the 1950s represented a materialistic American society obsessed with conforming to the limits of suburbia, in the 1960s a youth counterculture began to develop and thrive.  This youth counterculture, both liberal and relaxed, challenged the conformity of the previous decade.  Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner portrayed Sidney Poitier and Katherine Houghton as members of the young, idealistic, and almost naive generation who believed that their union would be accepted by their parents and society at large.  Joey, especially, assumes her upper-class liberal parents will accept her black fiancĂ©e, once again displaying the idealistic nature of the 1960s youth who believed in racial equality and the right for interracial marriage[19].  In Matt’s (Spencer Tracy) speech at the end of the film, he addresses the idea that love does not discriminate and although society will discriminate, Joey and John should marry because they love one another[20].  This speech seemed to fill the generation gap—showing that meaningful understanding could occur between the older and younger generations although separated by age.  In addition, Poitier himself bridged the generation gap because “the go-slow, carefully integrationist Hollywood films of Sidney Poitier were an anachronism”; thus, by portraying himself as a passive and “non-confrontational” black actor, unlike the new aggressive black actors of the 1960s, Poitier appealed to the older generation[21].
Interracial marriage is the highest form of racial integration because the bonds of matrimony signify true equality and companionship.  Thus, the positive reception of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in the wake of landmark Supreme Court cases such as Loving v. Virginia demonstrated a changing sentiment towards both interracial marriage and racial equality.  In addition, the audience’s wildly supportive reception of Sidney Poitier’s character showed that Americans were taking their first steps to willingly integrate refined and successful African Americans into their society.  When Sidney Poitier accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award in Cinema in 1992, Rod Steiger commemorated Poitier’s impact on American society; he said, “Sidney, I have never met another person who affected, protected an entire race. And who, under that pressure, maintained an intelligence and a dignity that’s impossible to describe”[22].  Deeply affected and emotional, Steiger vocalized the thoughts many people in the room shared; his speech served to show the absolute reverence Poitier had commanded through his many memorable performances.  Yet, like many other moments in American history, radical change often brought about backlash and criticism; vehemently opposed by steadfast segregationists and “Black Power” activists, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner faced its fair share of criticism.  However, the performances and response to the film offer a lens into the volatile 1960s: a nation grappling with both its sectional divide and generation gap.  

                                                                                                                                                             


[1]               "Loving V. Virginia." Historical Dictionary of the 1960s, ed. James S. Olson and
     Samuel Freeman, (Wesport: Greenword Press, 1999.) 281.
[2]                Mark Harris, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the BIrth of the New
     Hollywood, (New York: Penguin Group, 2008.) 187
[3]               Cynthia Young, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner." 1999, The Sixties in America,
     ed. Carl Singleton, Vol. 2 (Pasadena: Salem Press, 1999) 329-31, Print. 3
     vols.
[4]               Stanley Kramer, Interview of Stanley Kramer, Chicago
     Sun Times, 21 Jan. 1968. Web. 29 May 2011.
     <http://rogerebert.suntimes.com>.
[5]               Bruce Eder, "Stanley Kramer." New York Times, All Movie Guide LLC, 2010,
     29 May 2011, <http://movies.nytimes.com >.
[6]                 Bruce Eder, "Stanley Kramer." New York Times. All Movie Guide LLC, 2010,
     29 May 2011, <http://movies.nytimes.com >.
[7]               Cedric Kramer, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" Jamaica Gleaner News. N.p., 22
     June 2008, 29 May 2011, <http://jamaica-gleaner.com >.
[8]               Mark Harris, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the BIrth of the New
     Hollywood, (New York: Penguin Group, 2008.) 385
[9]     Variety, December 6, 1967. 
[10]             Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, America on Film: Representing Race, Class,
     Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies, 2nd ed, (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell,
     2009.) 87
[11]             Harry M. Benshoff and Sean Griffin, America on Film: Representing Race, Class,
     Gender, and Sexuality at the Movies, 2nd ed., (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell,
     2009.) 88
[12] Harris, 374
[13] Harris, 372
[14] Harris, 372
[15]             "Loving V. Virginia." Historical Dictionary of the 1960s, ed. James S. Olson and
     Samuel Freeman, (Wesport: Greenword Press, 1999.) 281.
[16]             Dr. Ed Fields,  "I'm White and I'm Proud." (Atlanta Aug. 2003) 69,
     books.google.com, 29 May 2011, <http://books.google.com>.
[17] Harris, 348-349
[18] Benshoff and Griffin, 88
[19] Young, 329
[20]             Spencer Tracy: Guess Who's Coming to Dinner ("Remember to Love Your Woman")
     Monologue, . www.youtube.com. (MovieMonologues, 1967) 29 May 2011.
     <http://www.youtube.com >.
[21] Benshoff and Griffin, 88
[22]             Rod Steiger, "Rod Steiger Salutes Sidney Poitier at AFI Life Achievement
     Award." AFI Life Achievement Award. 1992, Web. 29 May 2011,
     <http://www.youtube.com >.