Sunday, February 28, 2021

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

Every time I sit down and watch Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), I intend to write about it, so the other night for the umpteenth time, it aired on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). It was in honor of Sidney Poitier's 94th birthday (Feb 20), which gives me the perfect excuse to write about him as well. Because we're going to celebrate and honor every great pioneering Black actor/entertainer in some way.

I attempted to write up a quick birthday tribute for the Facebook page, but I got distracted by the opening sequence of the film and then literally, I sat mesmerized for the next hour. My laptop was open, but all I had managed to write was one paragraph in which I had mentioned a few of Poitier's great film roles--A Raisin in the Sun (1961), Lilies of the Field (1963), and Uptown Saturday Night (1974), and to prove that even great men make big mistakes, Stir Crazy (1980). I had also planned to mention the references made to him in other works, namely two plays The Colored Museum (1986) and Six Degrees of Separation (1990), but once I got to a certain point in the film and realized that I had been sitting there for more than an hour without posting anything, I hastily concluded. Then in the most inexplicable turn of events, I fell asleep and missed the pivotal last half hour!

No worries, though, since I have seen this film enough times to appreciate the ending. However, this time it seemed more important that I saw it from its very beginning, which typically I have not.

In the morning, I woke up to whatever nonsense was airing on TCM and I made a mental note to complain that they need to air more Black films during Black History Month. (I know that some of y'all assume that we're covered by the Black-themed movie channels on Showtime and Starz and the weekend movie blocks on BET, TV One, and Bounce, but none of those networks air the classic Black films I'm referring to.) Perhaps my complaint should be the broader complaint that these films rarely air at all, not just in February. Because as much as I love The Color Purple...

Thus, I feel an urgency to ensure that future generations get to see these films before they fade into complete obscurity, such that only insomniacs, history professors, and film students get to see them. For example, I think of this every time TCM airs Imitation of Life (1959) because I have never seen the 1934 original and often wonder if the reason for a remake was some "problematic premise" or racially insensitive depiction (wink, wink). But I can't determine that if it rarely this becomes the circular argument about the value of these old films weighed against the racism of the system in which they were created. 

Because as overrated as I think Gone With the Wind is, and as settled as I think the matter of Song of the South ever getting released from the Disney vault is, I have to admit that there is merit to the argument that the work of these Black actors deserves to be seen. However, before I fall down that rabbit hole, let me climb back out to focus on Poitier and why his career supports this notion of reconciling with the past.

In the pre-film introduction to GWCTD on TCM, over the years different hosts have emphasized differing reasons why this film is a masterpiece. Some cite the emotional performance of Katherine Hepburn with her beloved Spencer Tracy in what was to be his final on-screen role. Some cite the obvious--a whirlwind interracial romance that challenges the progressive sensibilities of these coastal elites in the waning years of the Civil Rights Movement. When the commentary is about Poitier, this film is cited as one of his most iconic roles, although I don't believe that his performance is what elevates this film to the level of masterpiece. I think what is always unsaid or under-developed in the analysis is the theme of youthful optimism at a pivotal moment in time. Somehow, a 50+ year old film that is clearly a product of its time, still articulates the contradictions of principles vs. real life. In essence, that tension is why this movie is timeless, and that is what makes it a masterpiece.

Mind you, (and yes, it must be said) that Bernie Mack film Guess Who? (2005) should never, ever be called a remake. Sure, it revisits the subject matter in a humorous attempt to reverse the roles for modern times, but it isn't nearly as funny a topic as they thought it would be. Furthermore, it should forever be known as the film that proved Ashton Kutcher isn't all that talented. But I digress...

As always, Sidney Poitier's performance is mesmerizing. I cannot put into words why, even in a film where I have questioned whether he was miscast (IMHO too old to be falling for some starry eyed spoiled ingenue), there he is. For the life of me, I don't see what he sees in this girl. That is not a swipe at Katherine Houghton, but it is one of the major dilemmas--off all the women he could have met, what is it about this one that renders the great Sidney Poitier, so off-kilter? I know, as Dr. John Prentice he's a world-renowned expert in tropical medicine, but also a widower who has immersed himself in work to blunt the pain of his personal tragedies. And Houghton is Joana Drayton, the care-free doe-eyed daughter of San Francisco liberal elites. She's on holiday; he's in Hawaii to give a lecture, then he's off to Geneva to do more important work with the World Health Organization in Africa. So how does this match made in paradise happen so recklessly? 

Even after my umpteenth time watching this film, I am unpersuaded that Poitier's Dr. Prentice should have been this spontaneous and idealistic. The very idea of such a methodical man falling in love at first sight seems improbable. So we must accept at the outset that it is Joanna Drayton's impulsiveness that is driving everything, and he's caught up in her whirlwind (indeed, everyone is). However, the reality is that he's smitten, but self-aware and cautious enough to give himself an out if her parents disapprove (mind you, he doesn't give his parents that same veto power), which is the central tension of the film.

There are other complexities and nuance that are noteworthy. The super retro version of the theme song, The Glory of Love. Tillie, the family maid, who is the only character in the film who is overtly hostile to Dr. Prentice and uses the n-word. The two gratuitous modern culture clash scenes with Dorothy dancing with the delivery guy and the Draytons' outing for ice cream. Hillary, the prejudiced modern art connoisseur as the foil to the open-minded traditionalist Monsignor Ryan. The very idea that an interracial marriage would be as problematic for John and Joanna in Europe as it would be in the United States (the film released just before the Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia). And the fact that this is all unfolding in the Draytons' gloriously extravagant home in San Francisco, across the bay from Oakland where the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense had been born a year earlier.

Seen with modern 21st Century eyes, this film takes on additional layers of complexity post-Obama and post-Trump. The issue of interracial marriage isn't as controversial and most people would shrug off all of the obvious misgivings about such a coupling. Instead, our worries would be for their children--what race box would they tick on their Census and college application forms? What does it mean to be biracial in 1970s San Francisco as opposed to Los Angeles or Oakland? Given their experience as a married couple, how would John and Joanna react to their children's surprise dinner guests?

Perhaps this is a good point to refer back to my issues with the Bernie Mack film, which got it wrong by suggesting that its protagonist, Percy Jones was a bigot. In the original, that isn't the implication at all as Tracy's Matt Drayton was depicted as caught off guard by the prospect of both an interracial marriage and given less than 8 hours to process the news. It was never implied that his misgivings were anything other than noble and normal, and even with my 21st Century spidey senses attuned to the various micro-aggressions that Prentice endures, I empathize with the Draytons and the Prentices. Alternatively in Guess Who, the fact that Simon's race was kept a secret for months was a bright red flag, indicative of the underlying trust and honesty issues between the couple, not of her father's presumed intolerance.

My husband and I began dating in 1996. My parents knew he was Puerto Rican before he came to dinner. Likewise, his family knew I was Black before I went to dinner. But that is another rabbit hole for another time...

Back to our leading man, Sidney Poitier. His Hollywood career was meteoric in the 60s, which is why I mentioned the two other works that reference his career. By the mid 1980s, he was legendary to white audiences for that earlier work, but as it is evident in Six Degrees, he was not on the tabloid level of A-list fame such that those who should have known better would have. The Upper East Side Kittredges (Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing) were easily fooled into believing the Black stranger who infiltrated their lives because, and this is a truth that is revealed in the original GWCTD, white people don't really know any Black people. Not even famous ones, of whom they are aware, but don't actually know. So the Kittredges and their pretentious circle of friends have no idea that Sidney Poitier didn't have a son. Nor do they realize that of the movies that were cited, none of them were the films Poitier co-wrote or directed, which was his primary output during the 1970s and early 1980s. (Sidenote: I love this play and the movie, which I believe to be masterpieces in their own right.)

Hence, the irreverent vignette from The Colored Museum that lampoons Poitier is so marvelously ironic. I just happened to see it online within days of watching both Six Degrees and GWCTD, and talk about fortuitous! I won't spoil it (you may be able to find a quality clip on YouTube), but George C. Wolfe's satirization of Poitier is so on point because it deconstructs his most beloved incarnation: the credit-to-his-race Academy Award-winning persona that is/was the eternal underdog of the Black urban experience. Walter Lee Younger is exactly the kind of sympathetic hero whom the Kittredges and the Draytons think of when they congratulate themselves for being patrons of Black art and supporting civil rights at their exclusive cocktail parties.

Nevermind that by the mid-80s when both The Colored Museum and Six Degrees were written, Poitier had moved on to direct behind the camera, including significant contributions to the blaxploitation genre. White folks don't know much about Buck and the Preacher (1972), Let's Do It Again (1975), and though I've mentioned Stir Crazy in jest, yet...

During Black History Month, we don't see any of those movies anymore. Yeah, there are problematic aspects, but if I can sit through Gone With the Wind twice a year, then I think there is an expert out there who can address Bill Cosby the same way y'all pretend Rhett Butler didn't hit his wife Scarlett all that hard. You see where this is going? There is an entire 20+ year span of Poitier's oeuvre between Oscar night appearances that is essentially overlooked. Are y'all waiting for him to die before we acknowledge his full range?

Because returning to the movie that started this, GWCTD is great and all, but it isn't a Sidney Poitier film. It is the last Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn movie, which is how I can justify falling asleep during the last few minutes and assure you that because I have seen it previously many times, I didn't miss anything this time. Poitier has receded into the supporting cast by that point, and the floor belongs to Tracy, who grants his approval to the marriage between his daughter and the exceptional Negro whom he just met hours earlier. He gets to point out how more evolved he is as compared to his own maid and Prentice's father, the humble mail carrier (because the white racists have already been dismissed, so what right does Drayton have to be hesitant about any of this)? How could he; why would he? This is no longer his problem; they are headed abroad to Switzerland.

But enough about white liberal coastal elites who proudly voted for Obama twice...

My final plea is to the program directors at the various networks and cable movie channels--PLEASE don't rely solely on TCM to air classic Black films once a year in February. Yes, they must do better, but how about instead of nonstop Tyler Perry shows/movies and Martin reruns, y'all look into the vast catalog of creative output that was released in the 70s and 80s (and possibly even back to the 40s)? Let's start with the body of great work (i.e. The Colored Museum) that used to air on PBS. And y'all can pay me to frame this content, and I assure you, I won't leave any sacred cows unslaughtered. Don't modern audiences deserve to know as much about Madame Zenobia and Geechie Dan, as well as they know about Nino Brown and Cardi B?

There is no question or debate about Poitier's greatness. What he did in the 60s was to win over white audiences so that he had the freedom to develop as an actor/director in the 70s and 80s. The fact that white folks don't recall his work during that era is irrelevant--we know that he paved the way for Spike Lee, Denzel Washington, and Tyler Perry, among others. Before we start debating who gets to come to the cookout, let's revisit who has already come to dinner, what they brought to the table, and how to reconcile their impact on the current state of affairs in Hollywood.

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