More than 40 years before we elected a black president – who is himself the product of an interracial marriage – Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn tackled the then-tricky topic in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. During a famous scene, Tracy ’s character says about the prospect of his white daughter marrying a black doctor:
“Anybody could make a case, a hell of a good case, against your getting married. The arguments are so obvious that nobody has to make them. But you're two wonderful people who happened to fall in love and happened to have a pigmentation problem.”
“A pigmentation problem” was a polite – practically genteel – way of acknowledging that interracial marriage was, in 1967, the ultimate taboo topic. At the time of the film’s release, interracial marriage was still illegal in 17 states. The movie’s exploration of the hot-button issue was considered provocative and controversial, and earned the film 10 Oscar nominations and two wins.
Like “Oleanna,” David Mamet’s incendiary response to the Clarence Thomas hearings, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was a wickedly current, ripped-from-the-headlines reflection of the country’s changing social mores and its polarizing views on race. The very year it debuted, Loving v. Virginia would rule that race-based legal restrictions on marriage were unconstitutional. And just a few months after it debuted, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, and a casual reference to him was removed from the film for the duration of its run in theaters. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’s tagline, “A love story of today,” was truly appropriate.
In 1991, the Will Smith vehicle “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” tackled interracial marriage in its own unique way with an episode titled “Guess Who’s Coming To Marry?” where the family is shocked to learn that a black aunt is engaged to a white man.
And in 2005, a loose remake of the Sidney Poitier movie called Guess Who, starring the late Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher, also flipped the story around in a light-hearted examination of interracial marriage through the lens of black skepticism, not white. In the new millennium, after all, white skepticism is racist. But black skepticism is hilarious.
In short, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner didn’t just spawn myriad cultural derivatives. It prompted an ongoing discussion about race that spanned decades – indeed, almost half a century.