Edina Csuti earned her BA and MA in American Studies at the Department of American Studies, Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged, Hungary. Her research interests include film theories, race relations, and social issues in twentieth-century American culture. Email:
Abstract: The article surveys the representation of the intermarriage between a black man and a white woman in Stanley Kramer’s movie titled Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and investigates on the film’s undoing of racial stereotypes during the controversial 1960s in America by discussing the socio-political and filmic context of the sixties and the regulations on the film industry by the Production Code Administration in that decade. The major part of the research centers on three perspectives: the first is the representation of race, the second is the portrayal of gender, and the third is the analysis of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in the light of other movies of the era.
Keywords: Stanley Kramer, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Production Code Administration, African Americans, intermarriage, gender, race, film industry, stereotypes
The Sixties, Inter-Racial Marriage and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
The 1960s is often regarded as one of the most controversial decade of the American history. During this period values and norms seemed to break down, principally among the young. Most of them became political activists, while others detached themselves from the mainstream by different appearance, lifestyle and attitude. Huge numbers of young people intended to create a new culture by opposing the old one in order to achieve equality, sexual liberation and peace (Bindas and Heinerman 22). One of the most well-known liberal countercultures was the hippie subculture which was a youth movement by origin starting in the United States during the 1960s and later spreading around the entire world. Hippies were not engaged in politics and promoted their own distinctive lifestyle that was free from any type of materialism and legal constraints. Moreover, hippies were advocating the equality of sexes and races; they were very often society dropouts but despite of this hippies supported nonviolence, peace and free love among all people.
The issue of love and interracial marriage is represented in Stanley Kramer’s most characteristic film of the sixties, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) by the conscious use of various race stereotypes, turning these stereotypes upside down. Kramer’s film is one of the most significant movies on the difficulties a multicultural couple had to face in the mid-twentieth America. As Jodi Rightler writes, this film is “considered to be a milestone among Hollywood films and has earned a reputation as a champion against an intolerant America by condemning many of the prejudices surrounding interracial relationships” (21). The interracial couple’s fight for their right to love and marriage is the central theme of the film, with the initially unaccepting attitude of the liberal white parents reflecting the implicit stereotypes of their culture and context. As Rightler also noted, the film “seems to directly pose the question contained in the hypocritical line: ‘I’ve got nothing at all against black people, but would you want your daughter to marry one?’” (24).
The American film director and producer Stanley Kramer was known for making films on topics that most film studios avoided. His movies put a spotlight on controversial political and social issues of the time. Kramer’s movies were concerned with issues of racism in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) and The Defiant Ones (1958), nuclear annihilation in On the Beach (1959), the effects of the Holocaust in Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), avarice in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and evolution theories in Inherit the Wind (1960). His so-called ‘message movies’ were indeed thought-provoking because Kramer aimed to cause his audience to consider certain issues. As he once declared, “If two people came out of a theatre in Kansas City, and one said, ‘You know, I never thought of it that way before’–that would satisfy me” (BBC News 2001). However, Kramer’s intention was not to influence people’s views but to make them think. He said that “it isn’t necessary for people to agree with me. It is enough just to open up the gate of thought and controversy” (qtd. in Mintz 93). During his career in Hollywood, Oscar–winning Kramer was nominated both as a director and as producer for various awards besides the Academy Awards. Altogether twenty-three actors of movies directed or produced by Kramer were nominated for Oscars and four of them actually won. One of his most noteworthy films, for example, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, has received ten Oscar nominations. The movie was successful even in those states of America where filmgoers were not expected to welcome films with black main characters (Harris 374). Kramer’s contribution to bringing African Americans on the spotlight in movies and helping race equality advance is undeniably huge. For this he collaborated with iconic actors-stars including Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Sidney Poitier, Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra. Since Kramer’s death in 2001, numerous foundations were established to help his legacy live on. In this sense, the Stanley Kramer Award, created in 2002, is given to people who fight challenging social issues related to those of the sixties movements.
The story of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) begins with Joanna Drayton’s (Katharine Houghton) unexpected return from a Hawaii vacation and a shocking announcement that leaves her upper-class parents devastated. She is the only daughter of Matt (Spencer Tracy) and Christina Drayton (Katherine Hepburn), a liberal white couple, who raised their daughter in a tolerant and progressive manner. Still, they get very much upset when Joanna introduces her African American fiancé, the physician John Prentice (Sidney Poitier). John’s black parents also refuse the idea of interracial marriage when they see Joanna. Likewise, the Drayton family’s black maid, Tillie disapproves the mixed-race couple’s relationship suspecting that John intends to take advantage by marrying a white woman. While Joanna does not care about what others think, John does not want to get married until both families reconcile with their marriage. The major cause of the parents’ apparent disapproval is the fear of prejudices and offences that the mixed-race couple would encounter in the American society of the time. As a way of warning, Joanna’s father even draws the couple’s attention to the fact that they will be considered criminals in several states if they get married. (Interracial marriage has been legal in the US only since 1967 after the Loving vs. Virginia Supreme Court decision.) The black father calls his son’s intention a mistake and is also afraid of the consequences. But John’s remarkable speech to his father involves the issues concerning the rights of an individual regardless of its skin color:
You say you don’t want to tell me how to live my life. So what do you think you’ve been doing? You tell me what rights I’ve got or haven’t got, and what I owe to you for what you’ve done for me. Let me tell you something. I owe you nothing! If you carried that bag a million miles, you did what you’re supposed to do! Because you brought me into this world. And from that day you owed me everything you could ever do for me like I will owe my son if I ever have another. But you don’t own me! You can’t tell me when or where I’m out of line, or try to get me to live my life according to your rules. You don’t even know what I am, Dad, you don’t know who I am. You don’t know how I feel, what I think. And if I tried to explain it the rest of your life you will never understand. You are 30 years older than I am. You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be. And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs! You understand, you’ve got to get off my back! Dad… Dad, you’re my father. I’m your son. I love you. I always have and I always will. But you think of yourself as a colored man. I think of myself as a man. (Kramer 1967)
The story of the interracial couple ends with the fathers finally coming to the conclusion that there is nothing that can be done to change the feelings of their children. At the end, the lovers acknowledge that they will certainly meet difficulties in the future but for them all that matters is that they are genuinely in love with each other. In the final scene, the families sit down together for dinner, all in an act of final reconciliation. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner depicts an era when race relations were debatable and likely to give rise to controversy, the racial integration was in its early stages and even liberal people had reservations about the mixing of different racial groups. The message conveyed in the film addresses this issue and places love above hatred.
The tensions around relationships between members of different races is rooted in matters that lie very far back in the past (Jorgenson 314). Anti-miscegenation laws in the United States existed since the colonial times and during the mid-twentieth century there was a dramatic increase in the involvement of the civil population in political activism because of the large and growing differences between various races and layers of the society. One of the root causes of social inequality was the economic oppression of African Americans. The lowest-paying, dirtiest jobs were predominantly done by blacks especially in the South of the US. As Aldon Morris writes, in “a typical Southern city during the 1950s at least 75 percent of black men in the labor force were employed in unskilled jobs” (1). Moreover, the great majority of African Americans lived in segregated communities, attending segregated schools and being banned from entering certain public places such as churches, restaurants, and movie theaters even in the middle of the twentieth century. Segregated minorities included education as well. According to Morris, “the educational level of Negro children in segregated schools” was “markedly below that of their white counterparts” (1).
In 1958, a black woman, Mildred Jeter, and a white man, Richard Loving, married in the District of Columbia. As residents of Virginia, they violated the Virginia Code 20-54, which declared mixed-race marriages as unlawful; they also violated the Virginia Code 20-58, which prohibited returning to Virginia as residents after marrying out of the state. As a result, the couple had been sentenced to prison for one year. The trial judge explained his decision as follows: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix” (qtd. in Nussbaum 337) but fortunately, the Supreme Court’s decision did not rest on such anachronistic stereotypes and the result was named after them: the Loving v. Virginia decision, which annulled the laws prohibiting intermarriage of races. The couple also became iconic figures of the right to love regardless of skin color. It is no surprising then that the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia and the release of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner occurred in the same year. With Katie Elizabeth Anderson’s words, “this demonstrates that in 1967 interracial marriage was a topical subject in America” (25).
Moreover, in the sixties, the Civil Rights Movements called for various “freedom struggles,” and set a goal to gain equal rights for women, African Americans and other minorities. After these iconic social movements that took place between 1954 and 1968 five federal laws and two amendments of The Constitution officially protected African Americans’ rights. As a result, many white people’s behavior towards black people changed in a positive sense. Actually, a number of other, major changes occurred in federal legislation due to these movements. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 officially prohibited discrimination based on race, sex, religion, color or national origin in occupation procedures; ended racial discrimination in voting and racial segregation in educational and public facilities; the Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed the discriminatory practices of voting including tests on one’s writing and reading ability that were required in order to vote; the Fair Housing Act of 1968 banned discrimination in financing, buying or renting any housing. John F. Kennedy’s programs included legislations connected to end racism and enhance gender equality. Besides, The Kennedy Administration employed African Americans in places such as the Post Office, the Navy, and the Veteran Administration. Kennedy also established programs regarding women’s equality including the Equal Pay Act that abolished wage differences based on gender.
The collective strength of the black community emerged from the segregation and oppression of racial minorities. Religious activities had multiple benefits; for example, the church also “provided an institutional setting where oppression could be openly discussed and resources could be developed to organize collective resistance” (Morris 4). The exclusion of blacks from the political, cultural and economic institutions encouraged them create a place that is not controlled by whites. Discrimination also inspired African Americans to create their own church and, as a result, many “black churches preached that oppression is sinful and that God sanctions protest aimed at eradicating social evils” (Morris 4).
The movie industry was also affected by racial discrimination. The Production Code Administration (PCA) forbade portraying miscegenation or any kind of intimate relationship between people from different racial backgrounds on the movie screen. The PCA had a strict list, a guideline of moral values that needed to be followed by film studios. This censoring office was established in 1934 with the aim to determine which content was acceptable or unacceptable in a movie produced for a public audience in America. The result was that filmmakers were not allowed to release their movies before submitting to the Production Code Administration, which stated that “the moral importance of entertainment is something which has been universally recognized. It enters intimately into the lives of men and women and affects them closely; it occupies their minds and affections during leisure hours, and ultimately touches the whole of their lives” (The Motion Picture Production Code). The representation of sex can be found under the “Particular Applications” headword in The Production Code of 1930, prohibiting 9 types of portrayals of sexuality, and with the 6th one including that “miscegenation is forbidden” (The Motion Picture Production Code).
The forbidding of mixed-race sexual contact inspired movie makers to be even more visually creative. The 1903 narrative entitled What Happened in the Tunnel by Edwin S. Porter is an early model for visualizing such miscegenation. An attractive white woman and her black maid are traveling by train and a white man sits behind them showing interest in the white lady. When the train reaches a tunnel, the man attempts to kiss the white woman, who changes seats with her black maid. Eventually the white man gives a kiss to the African American woman. Despite the evidence, the dark of the tunnel creates a dilemma of what happened. Filmmakers creatively used this effect to demonstrate interracial intimacy without actually visualizing it. By the late 1960s, many enforcements on films were abandoned due to several changes in the culture, history and film industry as well. The sexual and racial prohibitions alleviated after the Classification and Rating System Administration replaced the Production Code Administration in 1968. After the loosening of regulations, movies containing mixed-race romances started to flourish on Hollywood screens.
As Jody Lynn Rightler writes, many movies portrayed “interracial couples as deviant” and so the films that “do depict this type of relationship tend to reinforce the existing racial hierarchy, viewing interracial relationships as problematic” (2). In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner despite some obvious stereotyping, the interracial couple do not present any deviant features. The white member of the interracial couple Joanna Drayton is a 23-year-old optimistic, energetic and determined woman. Her tolerance and acceptance of races and cultures that are different from her own characterizes her whole life. The open-mindedness of Joanna is intensified by her true love for her black fiancé when she says: “It never occurred to me that I would fall in love with a Negro, but I have, and nothing’s going to change that” (Kramer 1967). Another feature of Joanna is her persistence to the ideals in which she was brought up. Nothing can make her change her mind about what she feels or thinks. She sees something positive in every negative. Her character portrays the hopeful and ambitious young white Americans, particularly the ones of the upper and middle class, of that time. The black member of the interracial couple, John Prentice, is a 27-year-old man. The character of John breaks the stereotypes of African Americans in many ways: he is an educated and intelligent man, who works as a physician and his position deviates from the expected social role of a black man of that time. The father of his white fiancée even asks for a check on the black husband-to-be to make sure he is not lying about himself. The ‘checking’ scene, however proves his impressive achievements:
He’s an important guy. Just the main points: Born Los Angeles, 1930… graduated maxima cum laude John Hopkins ’54… assistant professor, Yale Medical School, ’55… three years professor, London School of Tropical Medicine… three years assistant director, World Health Organization… two textbooks and a list of monographs and medical society honors… as long as your arm. (Kramer 1967)
Mr. Drayton claims that it was understandable that he did not believe that John as an African American could have such an outstanding career: “I can certainly understand why he didn’t have much to say about himself. Who the hell would believe him?” (Kramer 1967) The status and educational level of John’s character also reflects the process of a historical development. Thanks to the Civil Rights Movement, the number of African Americans gaining access to higher education significantly grew in America. (Anderson 27) Leaving the price of his telephone call that he made to his parents in the Drayton’s home is another symbol of John’s trustworthiness and a refutation of the standard idea that blacks are grasping and advantage takers. The stereotype of black men’s hyper sexuality is also broken in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in the scene when Christina Drayton “asks her daughter how intimately involved she is with John, and Joanna clearly replies that although she wanted to, they had not ‘been to bed together’ because John wanted to wait until they were married.” (Anderson 27)
There are also various evidences of a conscious fight against cinematic discourses of discrimination towards the black main character John and the interracial couple by putting emphasis on certain stereotyping attitudes. At the beginning of the movie the taxi driver, who takes the couple to the gallery of Joanna’s mother from the airport gaze at the kissing interracial couple on the backseat. His facial expression demonstrates the judgmental attitude of the majority of contemporary Americans. When the couple arrives to the gallery they meet Mrs. Drayton’s assistant, Hillary, who happily welcomes Joanna but looks at John suspiciously. She appears to be seemingly confused about why the white lady is accompanied by a black man. This scene is followed by the arrival at the Drayton Residency which also slightly indicates the unjust treatment of John. He thus asks the driver: “What do I owe you?” (Kramer 1967) The driver replies: “10.5, mac.” (Kramer 1967) John counts the money in his pocket then says: “Twelve bucks, right?” (Kramer 1967) The taxi driver looks at him for a while then takes the money disdainfully and leaves without thanking him.
A young black female also appears in the movie. When Joanna shows her home to John, a youthful attractive black girl walks through the hall. John notices her and stops for a while. He expresses interest in the black girl and asks Joanna about her. Joanna answers John in a cheerful manner: “That’s Dorothy. Isn’t she a knockout? She helps Tillie during the week” (Kramer 1967). John continuously stares at the black girl and immediately asks which days she works at the family’s house. Joanna pulls him to the terrace and replies: “Never mind” (Kramer 1967). The appearance of the appealing African American girl in the movie portrays that John is not in denial of his own race and does not intentionally date only white women to get above his racial origin. He does not differentiate beauty based on the skin color and recognize the allure and charm of African Americans as well. Furthermore, there is another scene of Dorothy which has a race-related interpretation. The dancing scene with the young white delivery boy in the garden represents the free spirit of the nonconformist youth of the 1960s. The two youngsters of different skin colors are having a great time together are in contrast with the indignant older people being disturbed by the breaking of the social norms. As Katie E. Anderson writes, this “demonstrates how Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner not only reflected African American attitudes towards mixed-race relationships during this period, but also highlighted the generational divide that existed in American society during the 1960s” (26).
Moreover, the movie also “accurately reflects how fears surrounding interracial marriage also greatly concerned many blacks in American society” (Anderson 26). Tillie, the maid of the Drayton family – despite being African American – is not supportive of the black fiancé. Her gestures while looking at him clearly express her disagreement when the couple arrives to the home of the Drayton family. She does not even welcome him and shortly after the interracial couple comes home, Joanna and Tillie get into an argument about the love between the young lady she brought up and the black man. Tillie is sure that John has an extra motive for dating Joanna and she warns the young woman by saying “I don’t care to see a member of my own race getting above himself” (Kramer 1967). Although Tillie seems to be sure about what she is talking about, her words do not affect Joanna’s point of view or attitude. As a matter of fact, Joanna thinks Tillie is the one who needs to reconsider her views on race, when she says that
You’re the last person I’d have expected to take such a silly attitude. You know I’ve always loved you, and you’re just as black as he is. How could it be all right for me to love you and wrong for me to love him? Will you just stop and think about that? (Kramer 1967)
However, Tillie has an argument with the black fiancée as well. She expresses her doubts about John’s profession and his real intentions with Joanna. As a black woman, she believes she can identify troublesome black males, who know very well how to pretend and break hearts and since she feels responsible for the peace and happiness of the Drayton family, does not want a man of her race to use and manipulate the young white lady she brought up for malicious purposes. John regards the Tillie’s claims as unnecessary and responses in a sarcastic tone after which the maid threatens him to watch his actions and protect Joanna. This is how Tillie defends her beloved quasi-daughter:
You may think you’re foolin’ Miss Joey and her folks but you ain’tfoolin’ me for a minute. I see what you are. You’re one of those smooth-talkin’, smart-ass niggers just out for all you can get, with your black power and all that other trouble-makin’ nonsense. And you listen here. I brought up that child from a baby in her cradle and ain’t nobody gonna harm her none while I’m here watchin’. And as long as you are anywhere around this house, I’m right here watchin’. You read me, boy? You bring any trouble in here and you just like to find out what black power really means! (Kramer 1967)
As Anderson puts it, Tillie’s “comment about ‘black power’ is a reference to the increasingly vocal African American Civil Rights protesters that emerged in 1966 and 1967” (26) when the blacks started to be proud of their race, establishing black political and cultural institutions as the main centers of the Black Power Movement. (Appiah and Gates 262)
Apart from Tillie, the white parents of Joanna are typical upper-class whites, who seemingly do not have any significant problems in family. They have everything they need: a beautiful and clever daughter, nice jobs, a glamorous house to live in and even attendants to help them. Notwithstanding their liberal way of thinking, they cannot easily embrace the idea of having a black man as a member of the family. Joanna’s parents taught ideas of racial equality to Joanna but this can indeed complicate their decision on whether the interracial relationship of the two will be accepted or not in their society. The parent’s description of their daughter show their attitude:
She’s 23 years old, and the way she is, is just exactly the way we brought her up to be. We answered her questions. She listened to our answers. We told her it was wrong to believe that white people were somehow essentially superior to black people or the brown or the red or the yellow ones, for that matter. People who thought that way were to think that way. Sometimes hateful, usually stupid, but always wrong. That’s what we said and when we said it, we did not add “But don’t ever fall in love with a colored man.” (Kramer 1967)
Joanna’s father and her fiancée get into a conversation about the problems children of interracial couples can have. They both agree that they would have some but John and Joanna do not think that those problems will not be solved. Joanna’s father also complains about the couple rushing him and his wife into a decision of hastily accepting the daughter’s marriage. John informs Mr. Drayton that her daughter is nonetheless the one who proposed the idea of settling everything so quickly. She previously calmed John by telling him that her parents will not make an unjust distinction in the treatment of different races: “My dad is a lifelong fighting liberal who loathes race prejudice and has spent his whole life fighting against discrimination” (Kramer 1967).
The Drayton family emblematizes a non-classical sixties’ family unit in terms of gender roles. Both of them work outside the home and have high social status. The mother is the owner of an art gallery, while the father is the owner of a modern newspaper. The fact that they manage their lives independently creates an equal atmosphere between the man and the woman in terms of profession. Mrs. Drayton’s character is unlike many conventional women of that time when the typical role of a woman was still being a housewife; in the sixties, however, more and more women left their home to enter the workforce (Kessler-Harris 20). Joanna’s mother not only rules her own life but also directs her employees in the business, which contributes to the fact that her career and independence is exceptional at a time when the struggle for receiving equal pay for equal work for laboring women were still real. Joanna best describes this situation in the following way:
Hillary runs the gallery now but it’s Mom who has all the ideas. Her idea for filling hotel rooms with originals is brilliant. It gives people who stay there time to decide if they want them. The hotel gets supplied with free décor. The guests get to look at good paintings instead of bad reproductions. The painter gets a chance to make a sale and Mom gets her commission. (Kramer 1967)
Their housemaid, on the contrary, has one of the typical jobs of a female African American of that time. Domestic service was the most frequent job performed by black women in America in the middle of the 20th century (Armstrong 1). But the rise of white women’s labor outside of the family home contributed also to the presence of housemaids as well, who I certain cases, substituted the missing mother of the home.
Joanna is the only child of the Drayton family. Her persistent personality is also conforming to the general idea of a woman in the 1960s. Going against the family’s will is not among the acceptable attitudes of a daughter. However, the young lady does not let her parents to change her views. At the beginning, she is under the impression that her family would unconditionally support the interracial relationship due to the way they raised her. She believes her parents cannot behave in a surprising or shocking way. She even calms John by telling him that “after 23 years living in the same house with them don’t you think I know my own mother and father?” (Kramer 1967). Her serenity emblematizes the conforming daughter, who behaves in accordance with her parent’s expectations proving that she does not intentionally oppose her family. The change in her attitude begins when they start to express disappointment and slight refusal despite their previous openness to difference or newness. Family disagreements and strong-willed youngsters characterize the counterculture of the 1960s and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is a perfect moving-image witnessing this transformation of family life.
Although the two mothers are the ones who sooner come to terms that nothing can be done to separate the lovers, “although neither of them is thrilled when first learning of the two” (Rightler 25), fathers are more difficult to persuade. In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, they are the ones who finalize the decision about the couple’s future. The speech of the seemingly stubborn father of Joanna closes the plot. His approval of the interracial love is what recreates the harmony of the family unit. The head of the family concludes the truthful message of the young couple’s love which serves as the end of the controversy: “I think that now no matter what kind of a case some bastard could make against you’re getting married, there would be only one thing worse. And that would be if knowing what you two are, knowing what you two have, and knowing what you two feel you didn’t get married” (Kramer 1967). As Anderson observes, “by the end of the film, the fact that the fate of the couple rests on Matt Drayton’s decision further demonstrates how the film still upheld white male patriarchy and control” (25). However, in spite of the change of the stereotypical gender roles, this film still preserves and celebrates the unbreakable bonds of true love and family, going beyond the racial lines.
Inter-Racial Relationships in Imitation of Life and A Patch of Blue
Even though Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is notable for being one of the milestones of interracial movies in Hollywood, some other movies were also made on the same topic from different perspectives. Imitation of Life, directed by Douglas Sirk is an American drama released in 1959 representing the issues of race, gender and class. It is an adaptation of Fannie Hurt’s novel Imitation of Life which was first screened in 1934. The significance of the movie is proved by the fact that it was preserved as culturally significant by the United States Library of Congress and preserved in the National Film Registry in 2015. These facts lead to the conclusion that Imitation of Life and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner are both noteworthy portrayals of the discussed era.
The movie has a considerably intense and passionate story filled with drama, emotions and controversy. The story begins at Coney Island where a white single mother Lora Meredith loses her daughter, Susie. The little girl is found by a black single mother Annie Johnson, who went to the beach with her daughter Sarah Jane, who is about the same age as Susie. The two girls become friends immediately and refuse to leave each other. As both mothers see how enthusiastic the children are, Annie offers her help to take care of Susie since Lora is busy with pursuing her acting career. As the time goes by the temporary help becomes permanent and the African American mother looks after the household as well. The beach scene introduces another important character, Steve Archer, who is a white photographer and takes photographs of the girls while playing. Steve falls in love with Lora and keeps chasing her; however, she is not ready for any commitment because of her dream of becoming a movie star. After several failures, Lora achieves a successful career in theatre and they do not have financial problems anymore. However, as the girls are growing, they both face difficulties in life: Susie complains about her mother’s lifestyle, who can hardly manage to find time in her ever-busy schedule to spend time with her one and only daughter. The lack of attention and continuous disappointments make Susie leave her mother and go away to college. Simultaneously, Sarah Jane rebels against her race, which is partly African American, refusing to acknowledge it until the very end of the visual narrative when her mother passes away.
Through analyzing the colored characters of Imitation of Life, parallels can be drawn between this particular movie and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. One of the main characters of Imitation of Life is a mixed-raced girl, who takes advantage of her white heritage in order to get ahead in life. The biracial character, Sarah Jane, inherited her father’s complexion and passes for white. She repeatedly says she wants to be and believes herself to be white despite the fact that her mother is black (Rooney 55). Her preference towards her white identity appears in various events. For example, when Susie and Sarah Jane are playing, Susie unintentionally gives the black doll to Sarah Jane, who feels offended and refuses to take the black doll. This seemingly trivial but still dramatic scene is followed by many other events that symbolize the tensions around the issue of race. When Lora offers a place to Sarah Jane and Annie to sleep in, the little girl starts complaining that they get the room in the back as always, with Sarah Jane believing that it is because they are black. Later she gets embarrassed when her mother visits her at school because her mother’s act reveals her secret of having a black mother.
The mixed-raced character’s fears of not being able to succeed in life because of her racial heritage are similar to the white parents’ fears of potential inconveniencies that their daughter would have to face in an interracial relationship in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Sarah Jane constantly refers to the black color as the reason for disadvantages and obstacles in her life. Joanna’s parents in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner behave similarly when they associate the skin color of their daughter’s fiancé with adversity. In Imitation of Life, the most obvious cause of Sarah Jane’s strong desire to be regarded as a white person instead of a black or a biracial one is the discrimination towards the black race. Before the long awaited changes of the 1960s, there was not much hope for the black society to move upward on the social spectrum (Jorgenson, 313). In such a context, Sarah Jane wants to pass for white not because the white color is more appealing to the eye but because life for whites is better and non-discriminative.
Interracial romance is also addressed in Imitation of Life; nevertheless, in a rather negative way compared to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Sarah Jane secretly dates a white man, who is under the impression that she is white but she gets beaten up by her white boyfriend after he finds out that she is half black. (The so-called “one-drop rule,” which was passed into law in the early 20th century in America, deemed anyone with even just “one drop of blood” of African ancestry to be legally black.) The motive behind his anger is the fact that relationships between white and black Americans were socially non-accepted at that time and he was afraid to go against the grain. The correspondence of inter-racial issues in Imitation of Life and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is that race is strongly present in both movies. The black mother in Imitation of Life symbolizes the proud African American, who is not willing to be influenced by contemporary political and social attempts that pull down the black race. She cannot make peace with her daughter’s denial of blackness and she says that “It’s a sin to be ashamed of what you are, and it’s even worse to pretend, to lie. Sarah Jane has to learn that the Lord must have had his reasons for making some of us white and some of us black” (Sirk 1959). Similar to Sarah Jane’s mother, the young black man in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner also represents a spirited and determined African American in a country inflamed by prejudice. The positive representation of the black characters is also remarkable in these two movies. In Imitation of Life the African American mother demonstrates the ideal motherhood of the time, managing duties involved in the running of the household and raising the girls, even the one that is not her own. She substitutes Lora as a mother and takes good care of Susie. Lora even admits that she would be lost without the compassionate and trustworthy black mother. While Lora is busy with rehearsing and acting, Annie reads Christmas stories to the girls and gives advice to them whenever they need it while growing up (Heung 21). In Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, John is intelligent and independent, treating his girlfriend respectfully and tenderly. Both black characters break the previous stereotypes in movies that were associated with African Americans, while some of the white characters demonstrate flaws, imperfections and weaknesses. This perspective challenges the standardized views about the inequality of races and the ideology of the white supremacy near the sixties and in the years following the turbulent decade.
A Patch of Blue is another American film about an interracial relationship between a black man and a white girl, who happens to be blind. The movie approaches the topic from a specific perspective, that of the saying that “love is blind.” The release date of this movie is very close to that of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: A Patch of Blue, directed by Guy Green was published in 1965, only 2 years before Kramer’s movie and has an interesting feature, its visuality. A Patch of Blue – although having a color in the title – had been filmed in black and white. The central ideas of the movie include race, family—and disability. The story begins in an apartment where a young blind woman Selina, her abusive prostitute mother Rose-Ann, and drunken grandfather live. Selina has spent all her life neglected in that environment and she does not know much about the world outside. She strings beads to contribute to the family’s low income. One day when Selina is taken to the park by her grandfather, she meets a young and emphatic black man named Gordon. After that day they meet often and get to know each other more and more. Selina reveals how she became blind by a family accident caused by her mother and Gordon also finds out that she was never educated, so he starts to teach her some practical things in order to make her independent and self-reliant. The friendship between Gordon and Selina soon turns into a romance. However, Gordon sends her to a special school for the blind hoping that after one year they will see how things are going to work.
Although A Patch of Blue and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner both represent a romantic relationship between a black man and a white woman, some contrasts can be found between the movies. The racist behavior of Selina’s mother in A Patch of Blue is not associated with her fear of the potential struggles and difficulties that her daughter would probably meet in an interracial relationship. The mother simply wants to isolate her daughter from people and use Selina for her own good. The refusal of the parents in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is based on the general way of thinking of the society of that time. They want to protect their daughter from the potential inconveniencies. Besides the contrasts, there are also similar perspectives in A Patch of Blue and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The black male characters are educated and intelligent in both movies. They are generous and devoted to their white girlfriends and represent no threat to their social status at all. Another similarity between A Patch of Blue and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner regarding race is the essential scene of the revelation of the blackness. In A Patch of Blue, Gordon is surprised that the blind white girl, Selina knows his race without previously mentioning it to her. Selina reveals it while touching his face: “I know everything I need to know about you. I love you. I know you are good and kind. I know you are colored and I think you are beautiful” (Green 1965). To make the scene even more emotional, Gordon’s reaction reflects the racial inequality and degradation of the black race of that time: “Beautiful? Most people would say the opposite.” (Green 1965) Selina expresses her disagreement with the perception of the society and she says: “Well that’s because they don’t know you” (Green 1965). The end of A Patch of Blue and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner also draws parallels between the two interracial couples: in both films the white woman and the black man remain together and get married, eventually managing to combat the difficulties that might emerge from their inter-racial relationship.
All things considered, all of these three movies share the idea of racial equality and the support of the integration of the black race into the white-dominated community of the people living in America in the middle of the twentieth-century. Imitation of Life, A Patch of Blue and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner are among the films that revolutionized American cinema by portraying issues that were remarkably new in the film industry. All three are inspirational movies for the contemporary movie industry from the social, cultural and political perspective but also for the ways in which media represents particular ideas in the decades following the 1950s and the 1960s. Moreover, filmmakers still see the potential in making new or different versions of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner even after decades of its release. one of these remakes if Kevin Rodney Sullivan’s film, Guess Who, based on Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. The 2005 film starts Ashton Kutcher, Bernie Mac, and Zoe Saldana and is a comedy about interracial dating and about the fight between the white boyfriend and the black father. Although some reviewers criticized its lack of political relevance compared to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, it still proves that the original plot has various potential even today.
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- Kramer, Stanley, dir. 1967. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Columbia Pictures.
- Sirk, Douglas, dir. 1959. Imitation of Life. Universal Pictures.
- Green, Guy, dir. 1965. A Patch of Blue. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.