This is a brilliant excerpt from Ed Guerrero’s Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film. If you are interesting in the representation of race, or Hollywood in general, I highly recommend this book. This excerpt surveys the representation of race in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? (1967):
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?‘s narrative epitomizes the standard Hollywood “problem picture” formula, rendered in the production values of the slick 1940s, big-studio style associated with its principal white stars, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. Problem pictures usually present the audience with a communal “problem” completely stripped of its social or political context, reduced to a conflict between individuals, sentimentalized and happily resolved at the picture’s end. Ultimately aimed at box-office profits by shaping films into standardized consumer products, this narrative formula was distilled from a long-established strategy of ideological containment that allowed Hollywood to stay current, keeping abreast of the contemporary social and political climate and simultaneously upholding the status quo and containing all insurgent political impulses. By introducing topical political issues into stable, easily recognized and consumed genres, narratives, and plot structures, Hollywood’s conservative ideology [remains un-] challenged.
…The specifics of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?‘s plot are those of a gifted and famous thirty-seven-year-old black doctor, head of the World Health Organization, who falls in love with the twenty-three-year-old daughter of millionaire white liberals… The integrated couple returns to San Francisco from a romantic interlude in Hawaii to confront the girl’s parents with an untimatum: either consent to the marriage by nightfall or the girl will be permanently alienated from her parents, and the doctor, the ebony saint that Poitier always portrays, out of personal dignity will break off the relationship and leave.
…By making the black man an eminently qualified and desirable suitor at the top of a professional class to which only the smallest minority of blacks could possibly belong, and by locating the narrative in the exclusive domain of the wealthiest stratum of white society, the film reduces the social dimensions of racial conflict to that of mere contrasts of skin colour while completely avoiding the historical, cultural, and economic legacy of what it means to be black in America. So, because Poitier portrays a black who diligently strives to be white, and because there is no representation whatsoever of the black world in the film, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? makes no connection with the contemporaneous struggle raging on a grand social and political scale outside the theatre. What conflict there is in the film is transposed from race into a conflict between black generations, reflective of the surrounding “generation gap”, as Poitier tells his father that he will not submit to the self-limiting boundaries of his father’s generation. In a reversed, contrasting gesture that frames the dominant white perspective as the solution to the race problem, Spencer Tracy works out his conflict with his daughter and lapses into platitudes about love conquering all, thus leading the film to a standard sentimental, romantic conclusion. By limiting the range of emotional experiences to simple expression of sentiment worked out by the use of predictable narrative conventions, Hollywood restricted its political vision and masked its conservative assumptions about race, passing them off as consensus. This narrative formula has served the studios well beyond this specific film, which amounted to Hollywood’s last attempt to explore integrationist theme within the frame of its status quo politics.(1.)
1. Ed Guerrero, Framing Blackness: The African American Image in Film, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, (1993), pp. 76-78.