There are a few reasons why Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner is the perfect movie to revisit this Flashback Friday. For one, the movie has just turned 50 and just received a new anniversary Blu-ray release. Star Sidney Poitier also just turned 90 (meaning he was already 40 when the movie was released, which wow). Finally, this week’s new release Get Out has been widely described as a new, horror version of GWCTD as it involves a black man going to meet his white girlfriend’s parents for the first time. The comparisons pretty much end there, but that premise is shared between the two.
The 1967 movie is focused on the return of Joey (Katherine Houghton) home from vacation. Her parents Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn in their last on-screen pairing) are thrilled to see her but Joey brings a surprise: A fiance. Even more surprising, her intended is a black widower named John Prentice (Poitier). The two spend an afternoon and evening with Joey’s parents convincing them this is a good idea. Drama escalates when John’s parents arrive as well and everyone shares their opinions on the pending nuptials, dissecting the role race played in late-60s society along the way and the future the couple will have.
The movie is “A love story of today” we’re told on the theatrical one-sheet. That’s a powerful statement that positioned it for audiences of that time squarely in the middle of the civil rights movement and fight for equality. Houghton and Poitier are shown walking arm and arm at the top of the poster, showing that this is going to defy some acceptable (for the time) societal boundaries. Tracy and Hepburn appear only in small headshots at the bottom, which is a bit surprising considering how big they were in the years leading up to this, especially as a matched set.
The trailer starts out by listing the movie’s star-studded credentials, making it clear the movie stars three Academy Award winners as well as a bright newcomer (Houghton). From there on out it’s mostly about showing the kind of drama that’s found throughout the movie, showcasing some of the big reveals like Prentice surprising and unexpected Christina, Matt finding himself in the middle of a situation he’s not clear on, John’s declarations to both Joey’s parents as well as his own father.
There’s no real clear through-line to the story that’s laid out in the trailer. You can get a sense of how things progress and play out from the scenes that are presented here but there isn’t a real flow to it. The theme of the movie is abundantly clear – the racial prejudice the engaged couples face even in a fervently liberal household like Joey’s – which takes precedence over laying out the story in a meaningful way. There’s also a strong focus on the “Glory of Love” song that is featured in the film.
As I’ve said before, the movie is very much of its time with its shock and surprise at a white woman being in love with and planning to marry a black man and how that’s presented as something that’s borderline scandalous. It’s tempting to think that this is all in the past and isn’t this a quaint look at an era many in America have put behind us because of how much we’ve grown.
But Get Out, at least based on the marketing, seems to show that no, that’s not so much the case. We see in the trailer that Chris is asked for his ID by a cop in a predominantly white area for no apparent reason other than the color of his skin. And we see Chris’ nervousness when it becomes clear his girlfriend’s parents don’t know he’s black. So things haven’t changed nearly as much as we might be told they have. If anything, what was once overt has become implicit. Jim Crow is no longer in place, but race relations haven’t evolved all that greatly in the 50 years since Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, making it still as essential a story as it was then.