Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner: Women and Race

Guess who's coming to dinnerThe 1960s witnessed the emergence of different movements of contestation and claims. The 1960s were a sort of real turmoil of some idées reçues[1]  of the previous decades in all over the words especially in the United States of America.  People of different groups started to claim justice, freedom of expression and rights. In fact, they asked for their rights as individuals and, simply, as human beings. Misogyny, racism and segregation in general were in progress of denunciation through different movements such as, pacifism against the war, Hippies, the Civil Right Movement, and feminism.

guessDifferent means were used as tools of protestation; literature, art, political meetings, music, and cinema are good case in points for the protest movements of the 1960s’ America. Characters like Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Simon and Garfunkel in music, Marin Luther King, Betty Friedan in politics, Marilyn Monroe in cinema, Alice Walker in literature and many others reflect the rebellious America through a protest prism. However, Cinema was a large mirror of the American society of the 1960s.

 Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner is “melting pot” of various themes of the period such as religion, social class, money, and youth. Yet, the movie tackles two other complex problems which are the focus of this paper. Indeed, racism and feminism also emerge in the movie. Women in this movie are very important in decisions taking regardless to their color.  In Guess who’s Coming to Dinner, being a woman is being important, being black is being important too, and being a black woman is being a symbol of reconciliation and the turmoil of faith. The purpose of the following pages is to show to what extent the movie is allegorical to the real 1960s’ America.

 Guess Who’s Cotming to Dinner: plot

 Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner[2] is a comedy[3] with racial content in a period where black and white marriages were not considered as natural. Historically, mixed marriage had been illegal in most states of the United States and still illegal in 17 states, mainly Southern, up to 2 June 1967[4]. Then, the Supreme Court struck down the anti-miscegenation laws in Virginia, two days after Spencer Tracy’s death. The film was the ninth and final film of the actor.

GWCD is a 1967 American comedy starring Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and Katharine Hepburn,  and featuring Hepburn’s niece Katharine Houghton in the roles of Matt Drayton, Dr. John Prentice, Christina Drayton, and Joanna « Joey » Drayton as follow. The film was directed and produced by Stanley Kramer and written by William Rose.  The film was released six month after Tracy’s death.

 The film the story of a young white woman , Joanna Drayton and a young black doctor, John Prentice she met in Hawaii. The young couple wants to get their parents benediction for their union in less than one day. Joanna returns to her liberal upper class home in San Francisco. She brings her black fiancé to meet her parents; Matt Drayton , a newspaper publisher and Christina Drayton, a gallery art owner. Later in the film, John’s parents join. They too are shocked too when seeing the mixed couple, them to dinner too. Joanna, who was brought up by liberal parents, does not understand he parents reaction when meeting John. She was taught to be equal between blacks and whites.  The parents have one day to decide whether they are going to accept or not the black fiancé of their daughter and the white fiancé of their son.

 Notion of equality

There is a kind of equal atmosphere in the film between men and women and between blacks and whites in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Instead of having two lower class men, here we are in San Francisco; the father is the owner of a modern news paper and the mother the owner of an art gallery. It changes from the classical vision of “Men Only: No Trespassers Allowed”[5] . Cinema opens others perspectives by giving the same part of importance to men and women, and to blacks and whites.

The couple Drayton , Christina Drayton played by Katharine Hepburn and  Matt Drayton played by Spencer Tracy, are liberal people who manage their lives independently from each other. Christina Drayton is an art gallery owner. She rules her own life and her employees among them Mrs. Hilary St.George, a role played by Virginia Christine. As they come back from Hawaii, Joanna and John go first to see Mrs. Drayton gallery. And this constitutes the opening of the film:

Mom may not even be at the gallery.

 She’ll probably be out to Lunch.

 Dad’s at his office. You may not

 meet them tilI dinner anyway. [6]

This is a picturesque dialogue between John and Joanna. Joanna introduces to the viewer the liberal atmosphere in which she was brought up. Her parents are independent from each other and both of them got an important high social status.

Mr Drayton and Dr Prentice

When Christina Drayton talks to Monsignor Ryan, this latter underlines the importance of his presence to equal the number of black people during the dinner:

The doctor’s family are flying up

 From Los Angeles.

 Oh, well, in that case,

 You’ll actually need me.

 Otherwise, your side

 Won’t even outnumber the blacks.[7]

In fact, the number of black actors almost equals the number of white actors. In one hand, there are the Draytons who are three in number. And in the other hand, we find the Prentices who are three too. Furthermore, Monsignor Ryan focuses on the importance of his presence because without him, they “won’t even outnumber the blacks”. Beside Monsignor Ryan, the black servant Matilda Tillie Binks, played by Isabel Sanford, is a kind of a guardian or a go between the children and the parents. Here also there is an equal repartition of the tasks of two external elements which balance the number between the two groups;  one black and the other white.

 Most of the time, the character’s names are selected and chosen for a specific purpose. The two central characters of the film are called John and Joanna. Nearly homophones, this two names sound the same. The only distinction between them is the female and the male form which are complementary in a way. However, if we proceed to a character analysis, we will find that the two characters are divergent but complementary. Doctor Prentice is a black mature physician who already has an experience of life. Whereas, Joanna is a high class young immature white women who is completely frivolous. They decide to get married ten days after they have met in Hawaii; an amourette[8] that is transformed to a real social issue of racism and intolerance. In her In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, Alice Walker said that a black woman or a woman of color is considered as “girlish, i.e., frivolous, irresponsible, not serious”[9].GWCD draws an opposite overview of the girlish black woman and attributes these adjectives to a white woman.

 However, this incompatibility between the two principle characters reflects the real America of the 1960s. In the case Doctor Prentice was not a physician and not educated, the parents would certainly not accept the union. In one hand, John’s education compensates his color. In the other hand, the physician wants an immature frivolous girl. The idea of making equilibrium in GWCD is pertinent but not always obvious and successful.

Black on black racism

The other issue in GWCD is black on black racism. There are two main scenes which illustrate the black complex of the sixties. First, the discussion between John and his father in Mr. Drayton study The second scene is Tillie’s warnings to Doctor John Prentice.. In these two scenes, the characters express clearly themselves as colored people.

Mr. Prentice tries to convimrs and mr prentice-nce his son not to marry a white woman referring to the sad memory of slavery and discrimination. However, John answers his father by a human right’s answer: “ You think of yourself as a colored man , I think of myself as a man”. There is a clear clush of generation between the father and the son. In the 1960s, the Civil Right Movement was at his highest level of protest. Tillie pronounces the name of Reverend Martin Luther King one of the pertinent figures of the Civil Right Movement in the United States, at the beginning of the movie: “Guess who’s coming to dinner now? Tillie: The Reverend Martin Luther King?”[10]. There was the Black Power movement at the time. People tried to make beautiful thoughts for black people. Slogans such as “black is beautiful” are widely common.

In another scene, Tillie accuses John of being a layer. Moreover she accuses him to abuse of his educational status to take advantage of a poor young girl.

Let me tell you somethin’.

 You may think you’re foolin’ Miss Joey and her folks.

 But you ain’t foolin’ me for a minute.

 I see what you are.

 You’re one of those smooth-talkin’, smart-ass niggers…

 just out for all you can get,with your bIack power…

 and alI that other troubIe-makin’ nonsense.

 And you Listen here. I brought up that chlld from a baby in her cradIe…

 and ain’t nobody gonna harm her none while l’m here watchin’.

 And as Iong as you are anywhere around this house, I’m right here watchin’.

 You read me, boy?

 You bring any troubIe in here…

 and you just like to find out what black power realIy means![11]

Tillie is considered as a member of the Drayton’s family. She raised Joanna from her babyhood. She is her second mother. Tillie uses a mother’s authoritarian tone when talking to John. She does not hesitate to remind him of his color and calls him a “neggro”.  The character of Tillie is typical to the black servant in the American films. She has a strong personality and dears to make the order in the house when it is necessary. Despite her strong affirmed personality, Tillie’s power remains limited. In both scenes, John is faced to the issue of blackness by black persons.

 Directive spirit of women in GWCD

Tillie’s speech to John is a good instance of the women’s power in the GWCD. Women in the film play an important role in the advancement of the plot. Almost all the women of the film have a strong personality with different tones; sentimental or directive. Each time a woman intervenes something happens.

women in GWCD

One of the most remarquable scenes of the movie is that of Mrs. Drayton kicked out Mrs. Hellary St. George, Christina’s gallery manager. Hellary come to Christina’s house just for gossiping about the family’s issue. Christina does not bear that and removes her with a strong strictness asking her to “go” simply. The camera shot added seriousness to the scene focusing on Christina’s hand gesture:

 Now I have some instructions for you, .I want you to go straight back to the gallery. Start your motor. When you to the gallery,tell Jennifer…she will be Looking after things temporarily. She’s to give me a ring if there’s anything she can’t deal with herself. Then go into the office and make out a check for cash…for the sum of $ …  .Then carefully…remove absolutely everything…that might subsequently remind me that you had ever been there…including that yellow thing with the blue bulbs which you have such an affection for. Then take the check for $    …which I feel you deserve…and get permanently Lost. It’s not that I don’t want to know you, although I don’t. It’s just that I’m afraid we’re not really the sort of people…that you can afford to be associated with. Don’t speak.

Just go.[12]

Hillary is fired without any objection from her.  She just “go”. This speech shows Christina’s power as an owner and a manager of a private business.

Even poor Joanna imposes herself by the means of speech.  She stopped Tillie when she started to give her opinion about Joanna’s new fiancé: “Then I don’t want your opinion,and if I ever do, I’ll ask for it”. Tillie was the last person Joanna expected to react in such a way certainly because of her color. Joanna gives the argument of love to justify her relationship with John. She tells Tillie that she loves her and that she is as black as John is. From this discussion, Tillie goes to prepare the dinner that will allow everyone to meet. The dinner is a symbol of reconciliation.

Mrs PrenticeMrs. Prentice, who does not speak a lot, too uses the argument of love to convince Mr. Drayton. She does not hesitate to remind him about his youth and the love he shared with his wife. “Old men lose all feelings”, she says. Mrs. Prentice speech is the clue oh the story. The image of black woman giving a life lesson to a white upper class man becomes a life lesson in a period where black and whites are not allowed to love each other. However, these kind of images are Utopian when considering America in the 1960s.


 The emphasis is put on women, things changes because of women, the women in this movie; expect Tilllie who is an old school negro, play a great role in decision taking. However, the last word is always given to men. And this is the failure of the movie in trying to put everyone on the same level. To echo the American constitution, all men are not actually equal and all “Men” are not equal too. “Men” are equal when they belong to the same sex and the same race. In Animal Farm, Gearoge Orwel, said that all are equal but there are some who are more equal than the others. It depends on your status and on the power that someone has. In short, women in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner are very important in the influence of decision taking regardless to their color. However, the final decision is given for men. If Mr. Drayton and Mr. Prentice refused the union between Joanna and John, there would be no marriage even if the women do not oppose for that.


Cuddon, J.A. Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory. Penguin: London, 1999.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Dir. Stanley Kramer; 1969.

“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”. Wikipedia the Free  Encyclopedia. 12 December 2012.’s_Coming_To_Dinner

Humm, Maggie. Humm. ” Alice Walker “.  Feminism: a Reader.  Pearson Education : London, 1992 .

Miles , Rosalind.  The Female Form : Women Writers and the Conquest of the novel. London:

Routlegde, 1990.

Orwell, George. La Ferme des Animaux. Gallimard: Barcelone , 2009.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. The Women’s Press: London, 1984.

[1] Idées reçues is a French phrase that refers to assumptions and fixed ideas established concerning a given perception of something. In our case, it refers of the established ideas of the previous decades when people had to be conform to certain norms and the breaking of these norms was an offense.

[2]  The abbreviation GWCD will be used to refer to the movie Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner

[3] Comedy in this case refers rather to the French Comédie which belongs to the large family of « Comedy. According to the dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, Comédie does not necessarily denote a play that is comic but rather a play a play that was not a tragedy. It may be a serious play which contains some comedy as it is the case in the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.

[4] Information taken from Wikipedia encyclopedia

[5] Rosalind. Miles. The Female Form : Women Writers and the Conquest of the novel. London: Routlegde, 1990. P: 194.

[6] GWCD

[7] Ibid

[8] A French word pointing to a short  love story.

[9] Maggie Humm.” Alice Walker “.  Feminism A Reader.  Pearson Education : London, 1992 . p 141

[10] GWCD

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

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