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Social Studies

Whatís for Dessert?

By Vincent Williams | Posted 4/6/2005

I snuck out the other day to catch the new Ashton Kutcher/Bernie Mac film, Guess Who. Now, as a rule, Iím not really a Kutcher fan, and I usually like my Bernie Mac in easily digestible, half-hour TV chunks. But I knew I had to see this because itís a remake of Very Important Negro Actor Sidney Poitierís Very Important Film Guess Whoís Coming to Dinner.

Iíve always been fascinated Sidney Poitierís Very Important Filmwork of the í60s, just because of the tragedy of seeing the actor bound by the weight of his place in historyóthe very heaviness of his Great Negritude. Whether youíre talking about A Patch of Blue or To Sir, With Love or Lilies of the Field, Poitierís performances were always consumed with self-awareness of his work being Important for the Race. Even in In the Heat of the Night, a humdinger of a thriller, thereís the shadow of Poitierís position of Very Important Negro Actor hanging over the proceedings. Hell, to this day, my Alabama-born father almost tears up when he talks about the scene where Poitierís character slaps a racist Southerner and makes him cry.

And of all of these Very Important Films, none was quite so important as Guess Whoís Coming to Dinner. Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn play the parents of a girl whoísógasp!óengaged to a Negro. Said Negro is, of course, played by Sidney Poitier in all of his í60s clean-cut, straight-standing splendor. At some point, his parents show up too and, boy, is there some hand-wringing!

Oddly enough, thereís almost zero actual conflict in Guess Whoís Coming to Dinner because . . . no one is actually against the two of them marrying. Everyoneís worried about ďwhat the world will thinkĒ about the interracial relationship, but thatís it. Yes, it was all Very Important, but it was also very boring. Still, I was curious about what the filmmakers would do with the issue of interracial dating in a modern context, and how the remake would fit with the original.

Guess Who certainly isnít boring. Itís kind of a lesser Meet the Parents. Bernie Macís daughter brings home the very white Ashton Kutcher to an unsuspecting family; hilarity ensues. And that icky racial stuff? Well, itís kinda like when you were a kid and you rushed through your Brussels sprouts to get to your delicious dessert of chocolate cake. Every now and then there would be something about Kutcherís whiteness, just because, well, thatís what the movie was supposed to be about, but then they would get right back to the Bernie Mac/Ashton Kutcher wackiness.

In a way, the difference between the two films shows all the progress weíve made as a culture. About 40 years ago, the whole issue of interracial relationships was so controversial that you had to cast a perfect black man in the role and, even then, the weight of race was so heavy that filmmakers couldnít show the couple being affectionate with each other until the very end, when the viewer sees them kiss . . . in a reflection. Nowadays, itís implied that the on-screen couple is sexually active in the commercials. Once again thereís no real conflict, but this time itís because the real meat of the movie is the relationship between the two male leads. Again, Guess Who has more in common with Meet the Parents than with Guess Whoís Coming to Dinner. And thatís a good thing.

Except . . . I kept thinking, Why did it have to be a comedy? And why did you have to change the composition of the relationship for it to be a comedy? Couldnít this movie have starred, oh, I donít know, Nick Cannon and Jerry Stiller? Or would Cannonís black maleness still be too heavy for jokes? Why is the very concept of a black family being upset over their daughter marrying a white man funny?

Itís like the filmmakers flipped the original racial structure around because, hey, itís ridiculous to think that anyone would be mad that their daughter is marrying Ashton Kutcher. Yes, it would be wrong for the black family to be upset, but at least treat the issue with respect.

Forty years later or not, itís telling to compare Poitierís aforementioned racial heaviness with Kutcherís weightlessness. Whether itís Guess Who or Bend It Like Beckham or The Joy Luck Club, somehow the white guy always gets a pass. Sure, thereís an acknowledgement of race, but overall the white lead just floats through whatever cultural and racial issues come up. Folks should be judged as folks, to be sure, but thereís some troubling subtext about racial currency at play when itís just taken for granted that brown people are always the ones that are the problem.

Itís that reluctance to even address such disparity that makes me hesitate to fully sign off on Guess Who. Hopefully, someone will deal with this thing before 2045, when Hollywood brings us Guess, the story of a black man who brings home his white male lover.

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