Sidney Poitier passed away recently. The film world, knowing the insurmountable legacy Poitier left behind, sprang to honour the memory of his immense talent and influence on the betterment of not only Hollywood, but America’s racial dialogue as a whole. Still, for a screen actor, there can be few better ways to honour their work than to watch their films.
Poitier was an unbridled superstar, and there are so many great “Sidney Poitier” movies that a scattershot recommendation would suffice, but today we’ll focus on one of his most popular and enduring classics, which has had a measurable influence on film culture in recent memory; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
Poitier and Katharine Houghton star as an interracial couple who’ve fallen in love and are planning to be married as soon as they arrive in Haiti, where Poitier is required for humanitarian work. Poitier insists that the union must receive her parent’s blessing before his flight at 10 p.m., but he frets over their chances.
The folks (Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn) don’t know Houghton has fallen for anyone, let alone a black man. Though the loving parents consider themselves liberals, and champions for racial equality, they are forced to confront their feelings on the subject now that their daughter is involved. Interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states, and the father especially doesn’t appreciate being rushed on what is to him, a deeply serious topic.
As can be assumed from its massive success, the film does take a softball approach to confronting these issues by modern standards, but for 1967 in much of America this was flagrant. The principal purpose then will have been to convince the audience to root for the happy couple, but the film’s writer (Stanley Kramer) does work in some interesting comment on what role toxic masculinity plays in those who hold sway in matters of progress, by having the fathers of the story hold out longest. It is a flawed and dated
movie, but Kramer approaches each of the characters with understanding, and Poitier is captivating as always.
Jordan Peele’s break-out horror hit Get Out, which captivated audiences and swept awards season, most especially for Peele’s screenplay, took some inspiration from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. As this video from the Turner Classic Movies YouTube channel points out, Get Out twists the anxiety of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’s premise into the source of paranoiac horror for his own film, which proves to be entirely justified by its end. Peele has labelled Get Out as a horror version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
“One of the lessons I took from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner… is that one of the reasons that film was so effective in its discussion with race is because it started with a situation that was universal.” On the eve
of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’s 50th anniversary, Jordan Peele mined the classic’s underlying truths for material that felt decidedly more 21st Century.