Taking place over less than a single day, the film wastes little time in answering the question from the title and establishing its premise: While in Hawaii, 23-year old Joanna from San Francisco, daughter of a liberal newspaper publisher, has met the love of her life. As soon as they arrive in her home town, her new-found fiancé John aims to get the approval of her parents, while she, more optimistic, simply intends to inform them of the upcoming nuptials. He has reason to be skeptical of their acceptance. Joanna (Katherine Houghton) is white, and John (Sidney Poitier) is black.
When the film was made, their marriage would have been illegal in over a dozen states and far from automatically tolerated everywhere else in America; such laws were ruled unconstitutional between the film’s production and its release. It was only three years after the Civil Rights Act and one year before the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King (the latter of whom is name-checked, along with Black Power). To say that the issue of miscegenation was controversial in 1967 would be a severe understatement. It didn’t particularly surprise me to hear that Houghton and director Stanley Kramer received death threats upon release.
Much like contemporaneous “important” films dealing with race, like In the Heat of the Night (also 1967, also starring Poitier), Guess is highly didactic. Joanna is impossibly cheerful and naive, and John is impossibly noble, at least towards her and her parents. Joanna’s mother, played by Katherine Hepburn, accepts the situation almost instantly, so does a Catholic priest. It’s Joanna’s father (Spencer Tracy) who is most conflicted and who has to ask himself the question whether his past advocacy for civil rights had been phony all along. In this, he represents the slight American majority that was fine with equal rights for black people in theory but who may still have been uncomfortable with the idea of interracial marriage in their own family. They are the film’s target audience, as well, more than the bigots who were opposed to civil rights in the first place, I imagine.
That helps explain why ultimately, the choice of whether the couple gets its happily-ever-after rests solely with the white patriarch. Other characters also voice objections, including black ones: a housemaid suspects John of trying to exploit a naive young girl, and John’s own father has deep misgivings, too. But their opinions are marginalised, waved away in Tracy’s final seven-minute speech.
The most forceful riposte to the anti-miscegenation position is delivered by John in a conversation with his father, declaring that he owes him nothing and that the old generation, which insists on labelling people according to the colour of their skin, needs to let the young generation just be people united by their humanity. It’s an uncharacteristically harsh moment that doesn’t seem to fit in with John’s previously calm demeanour, but then, John isn’t really supposed to be a realistic character anyway.
Like everyone else, he’s a means of conveying the film’s message, and none of the other characters could have verbalised the sixties zeitgeist of radical change in that manner. Guess is relentless in hammering home the idea that there’s nothing wrong with a black man and a white woman marrying each other, and sacrifices what little there is of a plot and character verisimilitude to this pursuit. Nobody argues from a malicious, obviously racist point-of-view, but the film still depicts every objection, even reasonable ones like the short time the couple has known each other, as wrong and a cover for racial unease.
To a modern audience, this naked didacticism could be tiresome, as could the too-cutely symmetrical construction of the Oscar-winning screenplay. But for some reason, probably the acting and a complete faith in its convictions, the film still manages to tuck at least a little bit at the heartstrings. It may also help to know its Hollywood backstory, that all involved were aware this would be Tracy’s final film, something that informs particularly Hepburn’s performance.
I don’t doubt that Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a courageous and important film in its time. Despite the overly-simple way it decides to tackle its topic, it addressed not hypotheticals, but realities. The Dunhams are proof of that; in 1960, their white daughter came home with a black man from Kenya, and by 1967, she was living in Indonesia with her second, Asian husband. Her first-born son, of course, is just one of the reasons the movie can’t really make a particularly powerful impression anymore. This is an age where interracial marriage isn’t just increasingly common, but the product of one such marriage has become President of the United States.