How the times have changed…

Civil rights is one thing.  This here is somethin’ else.”

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (Stanley Kramer, 1967)

With Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and Katharine Hepburn.

Until now, I had never seen this classic film about a beautiful white girl bringing home a black doctor to announce their engagement to her family.  I had, however, seen the 2005 Ashton Kutcher/Bernie Mac reworking of the film.  The “remake” reversed the races of the characters, having black girl (Zoe Saldana) bring home the white man to her family.  That’s just the start of it, as the tonal and stylistic differences between the two films are vast.

Kutcher and Mac in "Guess Who"

In the remake, Ashton and Bernie Mac are constantly engaged in a game of one-upmanship.  Kutcher is intent on proving that he is worthy of marrying Mac’s daughter and Mac needs to fuel his alpha male complex by proving that he still runs the show.  Although it is quite funny at times, I’ve always viewed Guess Who as a blatant attempt to capitalize on the success of Meet the Parents.

There is a definite tension there, but it is handled in a very lighthearted and joking manner.  The gags are filled with racist jokes, the longest-running of which involves Kutcher trying to prove himself as an “athlete” by lying about working in NASCAR.  Naturally, he assumes there is no way Bernie Mac would know anything about auto racing.  Whoops…

The original has its funny moments as well, but it is much less of a comedy.  It has a larger purpose at stake.  A few of its major messages are hypocrisy and understanding.

Spencer Tracy (the father) is shocked when his daughter brings home a good-looking successful doctor who happens to be black.  His wife later explains to him that they raised their daughter to see everyone as an equal, regardless of skin color.  Does this supposed “equality” have its limits, though?

Tracy and Poitier in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner"

Rather than competing with one another, Tracy and Poitier’s characters begin trying to understand one another.  Tracy learns to respect Poitier for all of his professional accomplishments as well as his personal qualities.  Later, Poitier’s parents come into play and they have some reservations of their own.

The nearly 40-year separation between the releases of these two films is obviously the biggest contributor to the differences in style and subject matter.

While watching the 1967 original, it seems almost odd that the parents are so focused on the color of the man’s skin.  The fact that the couple has a 14 year age difference and that they have known each other for just 10 days becomes nothing more that a footnote.  This seems strange now, but I’m sure it was quite realistic at the time.

The biggest hurdle in the original was the parents’ fear that the couple would be scrutinized on a daily basis by the general public.  Most everyone in the 2005 version of the story else understands the relationship between Saldana and Kutcher, with Bernie Mac being the lone stubborn skeptic who still needs convincing.

I tend to view movies on a deeper level of vitality than most people, but these two films are evidence of film’s importance.  They are a time capsule to two different points in history.  Even if you didn’t know anything else about the time between 1967 and 2005, you would recognize a significant difference in the way we perceive interracial relationships.  As Poitier explains to his father in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner:

“You are 30 years older than I am. You and your whole lousy generation believes the way it was for you is the way it’s got to be.  And not until your whole generation has lain down and died will the dead weight of you be off our backs!”

Unfortunately, racism is will always be underlying in the minds of many people.  They might remain ethnocentric and refuse to recognize people of other races, ethnicities or religions as equals.  At least by watching movies like these, we can see that we have tried.  Progress has been made.

Rating: 9/10 (original), 6/10 (remake)

RIYL: The Graduate, Meet the Parents, Away We Go.


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