Title: Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner
Release Date: December 12, 1967
Director: Stanley Kramer
Production Company: Columbia Pictures
1967 was a huge year for Sidney Poitier with To Sir, With Love, In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner making him the top grossing leading man of the year. Whether Hollywood needed a Black man teaching rebellious students in London’s East End, a Black man solving crimes in a racist Southern town, or a Black man meeting his white betrothed’s liberal parents for the first time, Sidney Poitier was your man. The latter two films also did well at the Academy Awards, although Poitier was criminally not nominated for Best Actor for any of them.
Reviewing Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 2020 comes down to two questions: is it a good movie and was it a good movie for its time? The latter question is easy to answer in the affirmative. It’s often noted that something like a Hollywood film can move the needle on a social issue by using a light touch. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner follows that prescription to a T with a cast of likable and good-looking actors coming together and having some disagreements, but nothing that can’t be worked out before dinner. I think all the actors perform well in this movie even if sometimes I can’t believe the words coming out of their mouths. As an aside, I love that Katharine Houghton has a mid-Atlantic accent just like her fictional mother and real-life aunt Katharine Hepburn. I also like Cecil Kellaway as the random Irish priest who gets tipsy and says things without a filter.
But is the movie good? It’s definitely entertaining, but veers towards the schmaltzy (my goodness, the music!). The fact that John and Joanna are getting married after only knowing one another for ten days seems to me more a cause for concern about the future of their marriage than their mixed race. I’m really curious why it was written to have them rushing into marriage instead of having known one another for some time, since every other effort was made to make them “perfect.” I also think it was kind of dickish for John to make an ultimatum to Drayton’s without even talking to Joanna about it. But the thing that bother’s me most is the inadvertent casual racism in things such as Matt (Spencer Tracy) being able to make the warm, fuzzy reconciliation speech while throwing Mr. Prentice (Roy E. Glenn, Sr.) under the bus.
Ultimately, this is a movie that is best watched as a reflection of its times while enjoying the performances of a talented group of actors.
Title: In the Heat of the Night
Release Date: August 2, 1967
Director: Norman Jewison
Production Company: The Mirisch Corporation
Set in a fictional Southern town of Sparta, Mississippi, In the Heat of the Night opens in a Norman Rockwell setting that quickly deteriorates into a nightmare scenario. Police officer Sam Wood (Warren Oates) cruises through the town until he comes upon the dead body of a Northern industrialist who is building a factory in the town. Police Chief Bill Gillespie (Rod Steiger) tells Wood to check the railroad station for any strangers, and there he finds a Black man sitting all alone and immediately arrests him. The man is Virgil Tibbs (Sidney Poitier) and he is not a murderer but simply there because he was changing trains after visiting his mother.
It’s soon revealed that Tibbs is a homicide detective from Philadelphia and is let go. But since the Sparta police are obviously incompetent, the widow of the industrialist, Mrs. Colbert (Lee Grant), asks Tibbs to stay and investigate her husband’s murderer. This sets up an uneasy alliance between TIbbs Gillespie as they attempt to work together to solve the mystery. Poitier and Steiger put in excellent, multi-layered performances which are the strength of this film.
Some of the directorial intent about race relations feels a bit clunky today, but I suspect was powerful in 1967, just two years after Selma and as race riots rocked American cities. One standout scene is when Tibbs questions a plantation owner named Endicott. Things get heated and Endicotts slaps Tibbs and Tibbs immediately slaps him back. Endicott asks the police chief “what are you going to do?” and Gillespie says “I don’t know.” It’s clear that just a few years earlier Gillespie would have been required to kill Tibbs or call out a lynch mob (even if he didn’t want to) but things have changed enough at this point that Gillespie can do nothing. Nevertheless, a mob of white men do get together to try to find and beat (maybe kill) Tibbs, adding tension to the investigation.
While Poitier and Steiger stand out, some of the other performances are weak. Particularly, Anthony James who portrays the diner proprietor Ralph straight out of Southern Gothic nightmare and Quentin Dean, whose bit part as a pregnant teenager seems to be based on a school play performance of Mayella Ewell. But by and large this movie stands the test of time. Oh, and the bluesy soundtrack by Quincy Jones, with Ray Charles singing on the title song, is absolutely perfect.
Author: James Baldwin
Title: The Fire Next Time
Narrator: Jesse L. Martin.
Publication Info: BBC Audiobooks America (2008)
This pair of essays published in 1963 discusses racial relations in the United States at the time and remains depressingly relevant in the present day. Baldwin, in a letter to his 14-year-old nephew, describes what it means to be black in America with unrestrained anger and compassion. The essays also examine the ineffectiveness of religion in dealing with these problems and his disillusionment with Christianity. Baldwin’s analysis of America’s problems – among both white and black people – is unrelenting, but he does offers some hope that people can eschew their narrow beliefs.
“You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. Wherever you have turned, James, in your short time on this earth, you have been told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could live and whom you could marry. I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying “You exaggerate.” They do not know Harlem, and I do. So do you. Take no one’s word for anything, including mine- but trust your experience. Know whence you came.”
“I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be “accepted” by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don’t wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet. White people will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this — which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never — the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”
“I know that what I am asking is impossible. But in our time, as in every time, the impossible is the least that one can demand — and one is, after all, emboldened by the spectacle of human history in general, and American Negro history in particular, for it testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”
Recommended books: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates