Thursday, May 12, 2016

The -ISMs of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?: Ageism, Classism and Racism

In 1967, Stanley Kramer along with William Rose conceived the idea of a film intentionally structured the film to debunk ethnic stereotypes called Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?. The premise of the plot was that a young, white woman meets a doctor while on vacation in Hawaii and falls madly in love quickly. No problem, right?  What parents wouldn't love their daughter to come home with a DOCTOR?!?! Right. Of course. However, there was one slight little problem-the Doctor was black. During the period in which the film was made and set in, this was a major issue. In some states, interracial relationships were even illegal. In addition to raising the issue of racism, the movie also made focuses on other -isms: class-ism and ageism (also known as the "age gap"). Stanley Kramer and his team of actors-Katharine Hepburn playing the white mother, Christina Drayton, Spencer Tracy playing her husband Matt, Katharine Houghton (in her debut film and is Hepburn's real-life niece) plays Tracy and Hepburn's daughter, Joanna, Sidney Poitier rounds out the principal cast as Dr. John Wade Prentice, Joanna's fiancee. The way the script was done, it portrayed several "-isms" in classy ways. Kramer was well known for producing and directing films that were "out of the box" for typical directors at the time and making his audiences think outside the box.

During the  timing of the filming of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?  Racisim was a hot-button topic. Racism is the belief by someone that the color of their skin is superior to someone else's. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? portrays the issue of racism in several points throughout the film. It begins in one of the very first scenes of the film. When Joanna (Houghton) and Prentice (Poiter) are on their way to visit Joanna's mother at "The Gallery", the two lovebirds are seen making out in the back of the cab, while the cabbie (an older, white man) looks at them in disgust, shaking his head in dismay. The cabbie is noticed one more time in the film, when John goes to pay him when they arrive at the house. John confirms how much he should pay him, including the tip and the cabbie acts all disgusted with him. Upon arriving at the Gallery, Hilary (played by Virginia Christine), is aghast at the thought of "Joey" with a colored man. When the two lovebirds leave the gallery, Hillary does as well-to go find Christina. Hillary arrives at Christina's home, after "Joey" and Dr. Prentice and Christina had returned. Hepburn's character had already met Dr. Prentice and did not react too positively at first. Dr. Prentice even expressed concern for Mrs. Drayton when she first spotted him because she looked shocked that he was a colored man, in fact, he even told her that she'd "better sit down, before you fall down", her young naïve daughter translated her new love's words "He thinks you're going to faint because he's a negro."  Later on, Houghton and Poiter are having coffee and sandwiches out on the terrace overlooking a great view when Tillie comes out, and shoves coffee at John as if she were angry with him for falling for "her little Joey whom she had raised from a cradle". When Mr. Drayton arrived home, Tillie was the first to greet him, with the line "All Hell's done broke loose, Mr. Matt!". Tracy's character was immediately concerned, and grows even more concerned when told that there is a doctor in the house, and inquired about it. She told him that, "He'll see." And boy, did he as the evening went on. He and Christina discuss the issue privately at length, where Christina reminds Matt how they explained the differences between the whites and the blacks, why things were the way they were and how wrong it was but had never told her not to "fall in love with a colored boy." Racisim was such a hot topic, that when this film first was released, some theatres wouldn't even play the film on their screens! Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?  is a classic example of a film that portrays racism in a classy way.

A second prevalent issue in the film is classism. Classism is the prejudice against or in favor of people belonging to a particular social class {Source}. Classism is present when Dr. John Wade Prentice first shows up at the home of the Draytons, where they employ a maid, who happens to be a black woman. This example is prominent because it shows how the classes were during that time period-Tillie was an older black woman working as a maid, while John was a younger black man who had become a doctor. Another example is that Mr. Matt Drayton-the white father- worked as a newspaper publisher and was fairly well off, while Dr. Prentice's father worked as a post man for 36+ years. Dr. Prentice's parents had to work and save for every opportunity they had given their son, while Joanna's parents were able to give her virtually anything from the beginning as they were fairly well off. Another prevalent incident is that, like a good father, Matt Drayton had one of his people do a search (this was BEFORE google, folks) on Dr. Prentice's background to see if he was lying about anything he had mentioned. When his assistant returns the call with the information checking out, she basically tells the Draytons that he's perfect-Ivy Leage grad, top of his class, well to do for a career, does charity work, etc...what parents wouldn't want this kind of man for their daughter?  Right. The Draytons discuss the issue, at length. One particular line stands out to me, said by Christina to Matt: "We answered her questions honestly about the differences between the races and racism and how wrong it was morally, but never said to not fall in love with a colored boy"When Joanna impulsively invites John's parents to fly in for dinner,she informs her mother after the fact, to which Christina replies "Good. You'll tell Tillie, won't you?", knowing how Tillie would react to having to serve more black people at dinner. Needless to say, it didn't go over too well.  When Joanna approaches her about the issue, she also wants to know if the guest room is in order as John wants to shower and change before dinner...which becomes an issue between the two women. Another way there is classism is when John and Joanna first arrive at the Drayton homestead and John is looking around in awe, like he's in some kind of museum, rather than his fiancee's home. While this issue isn't as prominent as some of the other issues in the film,Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?  is a classic example of a film that portrays the differences between the classes at that time.

The final prevalent issue in the film is age-ism. Age-ism is the prejudice against someone for their age, otherwise known as the "age gap". There are several prime examples of the "age gap" scattered throughout the film.  In the 1960s, everything was changing-there was the civil rights movement, there was Woodstock, the "hippie movement", songs about questionable values with television programs with traditional values, women's equality, and Vietnam, among all of this times were changing-couples were living together before marriage ("in sin"). Times were changing rapidly. However, people's attitudes, especially in the older generations (like their parents, Tillie and Hilary's generation for example) were not as quickly to adapt. One way that Dr. Prentice and Joanna's character's showed an age gap (he was 37 years old, she was only 23 years old) was when Dr. Prentice took her parents aside and informed them that there would be no wedding if they chose not to approve. When his fiancee found out about his ultimatum to her parents, she said "Why would you do such a thing? What a funny thing to do." Throughout the film, Joanna Drayton is portrayed as a naive young woman who is often underestimated by those around her-her friends, family, and even her fiancee! At one point Poitier's character even told her that (referring to him meeting her parents for the first time) "that you may be in for the biggest shock of your  young life!" Another way their age gap shows is their marriage proposal approval-she doesn't "give a damn what anyone thinks" (points if you know where that quote comes from! ;)) while he has the opposite issue-he insists upon having her parents approval, knowing that it would destroy his lovely bride-to-be if she had to cut her parents off to marry John. A third way she shows naivete is when she doesn't seem to see the so-called problem that they are going to have, and even according to her husband-to-be, thinks that their children "will grow up to be President of the United States someday."Another particularly minor scene in the film was during the dinner preparations, when Tillie's assistant Dorothy  leaves with the butcher shop delivery boy-both are young and grooving to music as they leave, he's a white boy, she's a black girl, while it made no difference to either one of them at all. Meanwhile, Tillie, the older black maid, was witnessing this whole thing and was appalled by the younger generations behavior. Another example is when Mr. and Mrs. Drayton go out for ice cream before the big dinner and they accidentally get into a fender-bender with another car-coincidentally driven by a young, black male and the young man gets into a fuss, calling Tracy's character "a stupid, old man" before the Draytons drive off after Matt offers the guy money for the repairs. All of these examples show how Mr. Kramer skillfully portrays the issue of ageism through out the film.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?  portrays the eras many hot-button issues in a tasteful and tactful way.  Kramer was well known for producing and directing films that were "out of the box" for typical directors at the time and making his audiences think outside the box.During the  timing of the filming of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?  Racism was a hot-button topic due to the civil rights movement lead by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Anther hot-button topic Kramer brings into his film is class-ism. The final hot-button topic of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?  is age-ism. All three of these -isms are portrayed in a very classy way to make people think of the issues at hand, often without realizing it. Kramer was known for films like this during that time period.  Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?  is a classic example of a film that portrays many issues that force the movie watcher to THINK about what they are watching and what they are doing in their own lives.


  1. Wow very interesting analysis! I had a great time reading it. Of course, the racist issue is the first thing that comes to our mind when we watch this film, but I had never thought about the other things. A very relevant article. :)

    Don't forget to read my entry for the blogathon as well!

  2. Thanks! Agreed...most people only spot the major one. The other two I mention are relatively minor and much less obvious. Stanely Kramer did a great job with this film, and picked the perfect cast for it! His Best Director and Best Picture noms for the Academy Awards were very well deserved.

  3. What a very good essay! Racism is the first thing noticed, but it's amazing how the film also condensed two other issues. Maybe Guess who is coming to Dinner? is the best film about the changes going on during the 1960s.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  4. Thanks Le! I agree, it is! Stanley Kramer and his cast did a TERRIFFIC job with it...pity it didn't win either Best director or Picture or Spence's best oscar that year (but KH did win hers!)