White Movie Heroes and Black Supporting Casts

Hollywood liberals' approach to race issues hasn't changed much in half a century

In the last year or so I’ve crossed the Atlantic several times on a certain airline, and owing to the limited selection of watchable new films available, I’ve seen a certain old movie several times.  The fact that it’s Black History Month has caused me to do a bit of thinking about it – and also about a couple of more recent movies that I’ve also watched on planes lately.

The old movie in question is Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, from 1967.  Written by William Rose and directed by Stanley Kramer, it was a landmark work in its time.  The story is simple.  Joey Drayton (Katharine Houghton), the very privileged white daughter of the publisher (Spencer Tracy) of a major San Francisco newspaper and an art gallery owner (Katharine Hepburn), flies back home from a Hawaii vacation with Dr. John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), whom she has met there and whom she intends to wed.

She is white.  He is black.  Though Joey comports herself with extraordinary self-assurance, she has nothing much to recommend her, apart from the fact that she is the daughter of rich people and is cute and sparkly-eyed, though also quite annoying and haughty.  Dr. Prentice, for his part, is handsome, charming, intelligent, wise, decent, honest, modest, and highly credentialed, and is the founder of an innovative new medical program that promises to save millions of lives in the heart of Africa.

The movie presents us –  as it does her parents – with the question of whether we should accept that this silly white girl should lower herself to marrying this outrageously accomplished black doctor.  I do not mean to mock this movie.  It was an earnest attempt to address, and alter, white Americans’ racial attitudes, and it loaded the dice in order to strengthen its hand (to mix two gambling metaphors).  The participation of Tracy and Hepburn in the film was for them less an acting assignment than a commitment to what they saw as a noble project.  It was Tracy’s last movie – he died only days after shooting his last scene.

In a strange way, the film touches me deeply.  I was a child when it was made.  I lived under the social conditions that it addressed and that it sought to change.  This is obviously part of the reason why I keep watching it over and over again.  Even so, I can see how terribly contrived it is.  Great art does not seek to change opinions in the way this movie does.  In the final analysis it is a piece of outright propaganda, even though it is propaganda for a good cause.

Plus a fact, the film has its blind spots.  Even as it challenges racism, it affirms class prejudice – apparently unconsciously.  The white Drayton family are highly privileged people who are exceedingly accustomed to their privileges.  The daughter orders around the family’s maid – a black woman (Isabel Sanford) who pretty much raised her – in a way that another film might invite us to find obnoxious but that this film simply considers natural.  Indeed the film, rather than encouraging us to contemplate critically any aspect of the Draytons’ easy sense of privilege, wants us to admire them as pillars of American liberal virtue whose success is, presumably, a reward for that virtue.  One of the film’s implicit arguments for accepting Poitier’s character as a suitable husband for Joey is that he has plainly ascended from his humble beginnings (his father is a retired mailman) into the Draytons’ own social class.  He, too, has become accustomed to privilege.  (The different ways in which he and his father pronounce the word “Hawaii” during a phone call – a neat, subtle touch in a movie full of heavy-handed, declamatory speeches – underscore the distance he has come from his roots.)

In the final analysis, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? is a lecture – a lecture delivered by Hollywood and directed at America.  Matt Drayton may be nominally a newspaper publisher, but he’s still Spencer Tracy, film icon; and his wife is Katharine Hepburn, also a film icon.  Their house, with its breathtaking view of San Francisco Bay, is the kind of luxurious residence to which the Hollywood filmmakers themselves are accustomed.  Their relationship to their maid and to other members of the lower orders is very much the same as the relationship of the filmmakers to such people.

The filmmakers are, in the end, saying to us: “This is how people like us – the Hollywood elite – would deal with this situation.  So should you.”  The condescension is obvious.  Perhaps less obvious is that, although the filmmakers obviously intend to do something positive for black people, the film isn’t really about Dr. Prentice or any of the other black characters – what it’s about, above all, is the Tracy character’s inner moral struggle over the idea of his daughter marrying a black man.  The liberal Hollywood filmmakers wanted to make a “serious” movie about race, but what they made was a movie in which the major black character’s fate hinges on the conscience of an elderly white man – a man who is, practically speaking, a stand-in for the filmmakers themselves.

Things haven’t changed in Tinseltown – not so much as you might think, anyway.  On the same flights on which I watched and re-watched Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, I saw The Blind Side and The Help. Both have been lavishly praised.  Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for The Blind Side, and several actresses are nominated this year for _The Help._  Both films pull at the heartstrings, but in ways that one ultimately recognizes as cheap and manipulative.  Bullock’s character is a well-to-do Memphis housewife who takes a promising young black football player from the wrong side of the tracks into her home and helps him to become an All-American.  The Help is about a white Southern girl in Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1960s, who, in defiance of the social codes of that time and place, interviews local black maids about their lives and turns the material into an explosive book about racial prejudice.  The Blind Side is based on a true story; The Help has no basis in fact.   Both are about the nobility of white people helping black people – and, implicitly, about the nobility of white people making movies about white people helping black people.

Which is not to criticize all movies about white people helping black people.  To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the great motion pictures of all time.  But The Blind Side and The Help are pedestrian pieces of work that derive whatever power they possess over audiences from the cheap uplift experienced by white viewers who enjoy identifying with the white do-gooders.  The white girl in The Help writes a book about the lives of black maids.  But the movie isn’t about their lives.  It’s about her interest in their  lives.  The good liberals in Hollywood pretend they’re interested in those lives, but they’re not about to make a movie about them.

It’s odd.  There are plenty of black stars nowadays who can carry a big-budget Hollywood picture.  But whenever Hollywood decides to make a movie about race – an “issue” movie, a “problem” movie – the reflexive inclination of the good liberals in charge is still, all too often, to go for a story in which the whites are the heroes and the blacks are the supporting cast.  This is Hollywood liberalism in a nutshell.  Shame.

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