The Defining Generation
Guess Who's Coming To Dinner
1955 a 14-year old Black teen left
On August 24, three days after Till arrived, he went with several of his friends to visit the local store operated by Roy and Carolyn Bryant, a while couple who operated the market that catered to local sharecroppers. All of the children that came that day were Black, all were under 16 years of age, and most of them had been picking cotton all day and were hot, sweaty, and eager for ice cream. They left the store in a jovial mood, laughing and joking among themselves like typical kids of any race.
Exactly what set in motion a tragic series of events was later subject of dispute, but it was generally agreed that during that departure 14-year-old "Bobo" whistled teasingly at Mrs. Bryant, who was working the store alone that day while her husband was out of town. She stood up, stormed to her car and raced away. The kids thought perhaps she was going home to get a gun and ran away in fear. Wheeler Parker, Jr., who was among the kids that day and who was Till's cousin, later said "Bobo's actions were innocuous. "He loved pranks, he loved fun, he loved jokes ... in Mississippi, people didn't think the same jokes were funny."[i]
the time Roy Brant returned two days later that joke had become the talk
of the town. Shortly after
on August 27 Bryant and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Emmett
Till from his great-uncle's house. After savagely beating the young boy
they weighted his dead body with a fan and dropped him into the
was buried in a simple pine box in Mississippi but his mother Mamie Till
insisted that the body be brought back to Chicago for burial. When she at
last saw the brutalized body of her son she asked that the casket be left
open for viewing before burial, and allowed photographers to take pictures
of what two White men had done to her Black son for simply whistling at a
White woman. On September 26 a
The tragedy that befell Emmett Till galvanized a growing Civil Rights movement that was only a few years from exploding on the American conscience. His was not the only such case to illustrate a racist philosophy that saw something of blasphemy in any but the most cursory contact between a White woman and a Black man. Well into the 1960s other Black men were beaten, castrated, and even murdered for simply looking at a White woman. It was a part of the culture of Southern Gentlemen in protecting the innocence and virtue of their White women.
problem was not limited to the South; it was symptomatic of perhaps a more
subtle but equally abhorrent view of interracial mingling that was a
national issue. Until 1948, 30 of our Nation's 48 states virtually made it
illegal for a White citizen to marry a Black person, or in many cases,
other ethnic minority. These were called "anti-miscegenation
laws." In the South, other efforts to "protect white women from
Black men" were blatantly evident in Jim Crow laws similar to one in
then, was the climate of thought in a large part of
was already viewed among movie critics and in
the film would garner a box-office audience despite its potentially
controversial theme was virtually assured by the key roles of two of
Casting the role of the Black man that would become the focus of the story line was one of Kramer's most astute and successful decisions. After confirming Tracy and Hepburn he approached Sidney Poitier, a handsome 40-year-old star who had already endeared himself to American audiences. From 1950 to 1967 Poitier had starred in more than two dozen movies and in "unusually-meaty" roles for a Black actor. His performance in 1958's The Defiant Ones netted him a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, the first Academy nomination for a Black actor for a competitive Academy Award. Five years later he became the first Black actor to WIN that award, this time for his moving performance in Lilies of the Field.
the film opened it was generally widely praised, both for its all-star
"dream cast" and for its delicate but poignant treatment of a
divisive issue in
simple fact that Tracy and Hepburn brought this story to the big screen
was enough to overcome the resistance of even the more conservative in
On the other hand, Kramer pointed out that he and screenplay writer William Rose purposely created Dr. Prentice as idealistically perfect so that the only possible objection to him marrying Joey would be either his race or the whirlwind nature of their romance.[iii] In that effort they were certainly successful. Furthermore, they set out to illustrate that prejudice and objections to interracial marriage were not a White-only matter. The most stinging objections to the marriage of Joey and Dr. Prentice come from the Drayton family's Black housekeeper and cook Matilda "Tillie" Binks, played by Isabel Sanford. More like a family member than an employee, Tillie loves Joey and reacts to the arrival of Dr. Prentice with an "All hell's dun broke loose now" warning. Later while watching the family agonize over their daughter's situation she remarks, "Civil Rights is one thing but this here's something else!" The solitary use of the "N" word is an epithet thrown at Dr. Prentice by Tillie who also privately tells him early on, "I don't like to see a member of my own race getting above himself."
The character at the center of the premise around which the plot revolved was, of course, the young daughter of Matt and Christina Drayton, Joey Drayton played by Katharine Houghton. In both the movie and in "real life" she was the only "baby boomer" with a major role and her character fell victim to perhaps the movie's most glaring error. Young women of our generation, especially those from middle and upper-class homes like the Drayton family, were generally college-educated, articulate, capable and possessed opinions of their own. Joey Drayton's character however, was crafted in the traditional mold of a simple-minded woman enamored with love. Houghton told CNN's Larry King, "I was politically liberal, and may still be. But I thought it was terrible that my character never had anything to say for herself of a political nature."[iv]
Houghton recalled that screenplay writer Bill Rose wrote a scene involving dialogue between Joey and her father, "And I got to say wonderful, wonderful things, all the things that I had been dying to say through the whole film."[v] Kramer shot the scene but it was left on the cutting room floor. When questioned about it he told her, "Your character becomes too intelligent. And it's important that you are a symbol of youth and loveliness and hope and so on. And for you to be too articulate is going to be…."[vi]
While the decision was one that bother's Houghton to this day, she did portray well the character Kramer crafted her to be and, immersed in her youthful idealism is a certain demonstration that she didn't even recognize that skin color was a barrier. It was exactly what her parents had always taught her and what she had come to believe. Conversely, Dr. Prentice was astute enough to understand that their racial difference might be a problem to others, including his own parents (as well as Joey's), while in fact it was not for himself or for Joey.
Houghton herself, in reflecting on the message of the film, doesn't believe that the movie impacted the Civil Rights movement to any major degree. She told Larry King, "I think that anybody whose ever been involved in an interracial marriage of any sort, or even a gay relationship, any kind of relationship that's not approved of, that movie became metaphor for those kinds of situations…It was a breakthrough in that regard. But I think it was a movie mainly for white people."[vii]
Certainly Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in and of itself was insufficient to change the bigoted opinions of anyone opposed to Civil Rights for Black people. In fact the overtly racially prejudiced probably refused to watch the movie on principle. But the movie did speak to a number of different segments of its audience.
Joey Drayton's idyllic acceptance of her fiancée's love, never seeing his ethnicity or contemplating the problems of an interracial marriage, did illustrate the danger of taking naïve approach to those of us who were then young and developing our own opinions. It said that interracial marriage is okay but cautioned that such actions may meet opposition from some of the most unanticipated sources. Further, the lovable and insightful characters of Joey's parents illustrated that questions about interracial marriage were not necessarily reflective of prejudice but rather could also come from concern and even custom. While it is appropriate to hate bigotry and prejudice, such character weaknesses could be found in otherwise very good and lovable people.
The opposition of Dr. Prentice's Black parents most likely gave few Black men and women of the older generation cause to rethink their own personal prejudices, but it did serve to point out that racial prejudice can be a problem for both Black and White people. In that, perhaps, is the most effective message older White Americans learned about their own feelings. It was a lesson that may have caused some older White members of the audience who may have felt uncomfortable at the concept of interracial marriage to say to themselves, "Gee, I never thought that they other side would feel the same way I do." Soon they found themselves personally identifying with people of color.
One of the most poignant lines in the movie is spoken during a conversation with Dr. Prentice (Sidney Poitier) and his father Mr. Prentice (Foy Glenn). The elder is a retired postman, a hard-working but middle-class Black man who invested his time and efforts, sacrificing with his wife to give the couple's only child an education that would open doors of opportunity. After explaining that this (proposed marriage to a White girl) is the first time the father has ever had cause to be ashamed of his son Potier responds, "You are 30 years older than I am. You and your whole lousy generation believe that the way it was for you is the way it's got to be. You've got to get off my back. You think of yourself as a COLORED man--I think of myself as a man."
This further illustrated the widening gap between the generations, visible in so many ways during the '60s and put a positive spin on it. To the older generation it said, "Your lack of comfort with an interracial society is understandable…it is what you have been taught and all that you have never known. While that feeling may be understandable, do not judge the young who are growing up in a new day, questioning old traditions, and thinking in revolutionary but more appropriate manners."
While dealing with such issues the movie remained a true comedy and any lessons learned were gained as those who watched it identified with characters and situations. The basic plot evolved from the idea of a liberal man being forced to confront a test of his beliefs. At the time there were many in both the older and the younger generation who believed themselves liberated from racial prejudice. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner forced them to laugh at the potential of having to deal with their beliefs in a potentially real situation. It also forced them to question just how strongly they believed in a raceless society.
Spencer Tracy certainly turned in one of his greatest performances as he agonized with his character's life-long belief that all people should be judged by their character and not the color of their skin. His daughter's naiveté about race is laid at the doorstep of his core beliefs…"This is how you raised your daughter." The audience is drawn to him throughout his performance, struggling with his own turmoil, and hoping to see him prove himself true to what he has always believed.
the beginning of the project itself
the most life-altering impact of the movie was not the effect it had on
audiences, though it remained a memorable experience, but the impact it
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner marked the last pairing of Tracy and Hepburn. During Spencer Tracy's powerful oratory in the Drayton Family sitting room at the movie's end Katharine Hepburn listens to her on-screen husband with loving admiration and tearful eyes. They were not the tears of an actress playing a powerful role…they were real. Hepburn knew that Spencer Tracy was dying and that this would be their final picture together. Ten days later she was at his bedside him when he died. His last performance lives as a telling tribute to theAmerica that loved him, respected him, and was not undergoing great change.
CNN Larry King Live,
"Interview with Katharine Houghton,"
CNN Larry King Live, ibid
[vi] CNN Larry King Live, ibid
[vii] CNN Larry King Live, ibid
The Defining Generation: Copyright © 2006 by Doug and Pam Sterner
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