Race Relations and Historical Context in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

Over one hundred years ago, legendary historian and sociologist, W. E. B. DuBois said, “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line” (DuBois). Interracial marriage was highly controversial and rarely witnessed because of segregation and discrimination during the decade of the sixties. Southern states actually had miscegenation statutes prohibiting it. This well-scripted, award-winning film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner tackles the subject of interracial marriage. The principal characters portray authentic “sixties society” and the difficulties that accompany interracial marriage. They deliver fascinating performances of the social customs, which wrongly regarded black people as a “problem,” and offer audiences the possibility of seeing past race-related misconceptions.

Although black people were perfect as cooks, nannies, maids, butlers, bellmen and chauffeurs, socially, they were undesirable for marriage to whites. In this film, Joanna Drayton – young, cheerful and white – is the daughter of a wealthy newspaper publisher, who falls irreversibly in love with a handsome, accomplished doctor and widower, John Wade Prentice. In addition to all of his medical successes – he happens to be African-American. John is does not conform to any negative stereotypes about black people: e is a successful professional and his story is quite atypical. He has degrees, missions, activities and accomplishments to his credit. He regards himself as a man, but his father (of a different generation and philosophy) regards himself as a “colored man.” The love that John and Joanna discover is evident. Together, they are radiant, blissful and full of life and they joyfully share their elation with all. They have a bond that is not easily severed. Joanna’s parents, the Draytons are successful and wealthy and do not appear prejudiced or discriminatory until they’re put to the test. As the cultural norm, they intermingle and relate well with blacks until “race” comes to dinner.

Although very respectful and hospitable to the Prentices, the Draytons are stunned when they learn that their daughter has fallen in love with a black man and plans to marry him in a few days. The racial atmosphere of civil rights, protests, marches, segregation, and racial unrest in the sixties taught blacks that it was best to marry within their own race as whites did theirs. John’s father, whose ancestors were slaves, reminded John that if he married Joanna, he “would be breaking the law in sixteen or seventeen states…” Both fathers consider the consequences from society and sternly disapprove of their children’s marriage. These men know their history and the way society “views” segregation. Their ideology supports the cultural climate of the time. Blacks do not marry whites and vice-versa. These men are extremely concerned about “what people will say.” They try to reason with their wives, but to no avail because their wives strongly approve of the marriage and agree that the only way the couple will be happy is if they are together. These two women recognize that the couple is excitedly in love and share a passion that is often not authentic in new relationships.

Mrs. Drayton and Mrs. Prentice will not stand in the way of their children’s happiness. Tillie on the other hand will. She demonstrates what is known as “black on black” racism, which provokes her to dislike or “hate on” John. Joanna tells Tillie that she is just as black as John and she is one of the last ones that she expected to take “such a silly attitude” regarding John. Joanna questions Tillie, “How could it possibly be alright for me to love you and wrong for me to love him?” Tillie is the stereotypical Negro cook. John, quite atypically, is an accomplished Medical doctor, and is extremely kind to Tillie. During the sixties and even today, many people of the black race would rather destroy than build other members of the black race. It’s almost as if one is going too economically or intellectually be uplifted and the other is determined not to let it happen. The cultural environment of the time also dictated that Tillie “stay in her place” and for twenty-two years, she has contentedly (or regrettably) done just that. She appears contented in her role, but considering her unwarranted outbursts to John, she could very well harbor bitterness and regret. Nevertheless, in her “place,” she is offended by John’s progress, success and affection for his rare, white beauty.

The film’s director, Stanley Kramer, explicitly communicates that contrary to society; love cannot be controlled by race. When two people love each other, regardless of race, they will break laws and rules to be together. Joanna’s individuality causes her to go against the cultural environment of the time. She knows what she wants and convincingly maintains her position. Her love for John transcends the barriers of culture and race. She naively asserts, “It never occurred to me that I would fall in love with a Negro,” and confidently claims, “but I have, and nothing’s going to change that.” Kramer’s message of the right to interracial marriage and love conquering race is very well communicated to his audience. It could be said that he was fueled and inspired to take the position that he did because in the same year, history was made regarding interracial marriage.

In a landmark decision on June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court ruled in Loving v. Virginia that, “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State” (Supreme Court Multimedia). Mr. Drayton, in his famous last speech, considers how deeply the couple cares for each other and realizes that preventing them from marrying is not the answer to the much deeper problem of race. He tells them, “people will be shocked, offended and appalled at the two of you” and wishes he could protect them from it all, but simply tells them to ride it out. He finally concedes to the couple by saying, “You are two wonderful people who happened to fall in love, and happen to have a “pigmentation problem.” Although love isn’t partial to pigmentation, his comment gives credence to W. E. B. DuBois’ foresight…and even he would be astounded that in the Twenty-first Century, there continues to be a “problem” with the color line.