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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner (1967)



Reviews and Comments

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner is an interesting film in that it was progressive in its time -- one of the first films to deal with interracial marriage -- and yet is not terribly dated today, except in depicting times gone by. Perhaps this is because the characters are not embodiments of social activism but individuals in their own right.

The story is of a black man (Sidney Poitier) and a white woman (Katharine Houghton) who return from a trip to Hawaii to meet the woman's parents (Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) and announce their engagement. Eventually, his parents get involved too. What you may be thinking from this plot synopsis is that some if not all of the four parents are racists and therefore do not endorse the marriage, and there will be threats and fallings out and enlightments and reconciliations by the end, all timed in synch with the demands of the plot.

What I liked about Guess Who's Coming To Dinner is that the characters are far more complex than that. The characters played by Tracy and Hepburn are not racists. On the contrary, Tracy plays a newspaperman who has used his editorial influence to fight against prejudice. They have raised their daughter to treat all men equally. But progress comes one step at a time, and interracial marriage is a step beyond equal rights. There's more to it than that, too: even accepting the rightness of an interracial marriage, there is the matter of society's acceptance to consider, the probable persecution of their children, and so forth.

And it goes beyond that, still. This couple is not merely a black man and a white woman: they are individuals, which unique relationships with their parents and each other. The characters are all conscientious of when respect must be paid, when concession is called for, and also when it is not called for. It is refreshing to see a character drama that is not so bound up, as many are, in the superficial matter of whether the characters like each other or not, or forgive each other or not: in this one, all the characters start out either loving or respecting one another, for the most part that does not change. But there are many fine lines to walk in conducting human relationships, whether between husband and wife, parent and child, or in-laws. Guess Who's Coming To Dinner understands them and explores them in depth.

That said, none of this would have been very entertaining if not for the outstanding cast. Tracy and Hepburn, in their last screen appearance together (Tracy died days after filming completed), are as wonderful here as they ever were. Poitier seems incapable of turning in a performance that does not command both respect and attention. And Houghton, in her first film role in a career set mostly on the stage, is a warm surprise, charismatic and likeable and perfectly able to keep up with her venerable co-stars.