When Joanna ‘Joey’ Drayton (Katharine Houghton), a liberal-minded white woman, and black doctor John Prentice (Sidney Poitier) get engaged, they go to San Francisco so John can meet her parents Christina (Katherine Hepburn) and Matt (Spencer Tracy). The Draytons are rich liberals who must confront the prejudice the marriage will bring. Also coming to dinner are John’s parents (Roy Glenn & Isabel Sanford) from LA who are very much against the relationship. Christina also invites the Draytons’ longtime friend Monsignor Ryan (Cecil Kellaway). Throughout the day and into the night, they discuss the problems that lay ahead for John and Joey in a prejudice society.
With events like Selma in the 60s and Charlottesville in the 2010s, I think it is justified why a character as interesting and progressive as Matt Drayton (Spencer Tracy) does not immediately take to his daughter’s interracial relationship. No matter how liberal or free-thinking a person can be, it doesn’t make it any less true that humanity and society do not evolve at the same rate. And I think that even in 2017, a film like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner holds relevance. With Katheryn Bigelow’s Detroit and indie hit The Big Sick, it shows that the US still has racial prejudice in its heart. Well, it’s on television everyday and it’s still part of many communities’ day-to-day lives.
However, social commentary aside, there are numerous examples of great laugh out loud moments including when Christina (Katherine Hepburn) fires her employee who shows her hand: an ace of diamonds of racist and prejudice views. Christina doesn’t have time for that so she fires her employee Hilary (Virginia Christine) when she comes to visit, right on the front porch. “Now I have some instructions for you” begins Christina and everything that follows for the next few minutes is genius. Also, much of what transpires between Ryan (Cecil Kellaway) and Matt (Spencer Tracey) is either meaningful or hilarious, as are the confrontations between John and the Draytons’ cook.
Yet, I can’t help but feel that the more things that change in fifty years, there are some things that remain the same. Yes there are more examples of interracial couples today more than in the 1990s as there were more examples in the 1990s than in the 1960s. And 2017 is more tolerable towards people who are “Other” than thirty or fifty years ago. However, that tolerance doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of narrow-minded individuals. I still believe that relationships like this are as controversial as they were in 60s, especially when religion plays a role, like when Muslims look to outside of Islam, as shown in The Big Sick when Kumail tells his parents he has a white girlfriend.
From the Oscar-winning performance by Spencer Tracy to the sociopolitical undertone to the very good screenplay (William Rose) to the direction by Stanley Kramer (High Noon), Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner may be dated in some parts of its dialogue but the film as a whole still has relevance in the modern day as society and humanity continue to be out of sync with one another.