Black & White on the Silver Screen

by Roger Griffith

Fifty years before the interracial romance-horror Get Out (2017) delighted global audiences; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was in its day, an explosive examination of race and identity politics during the revolutionary late 1960s. It starred Sir Sidney Poitier – himself no stranger to controversial on-screen depictions of race, having starred in The Defiant Ones (1958), In the Heat of the Night (1968) and as a London teacher in  To Sir with Love (1968). Bringing back this classic also provides an opportunity to pay tribute to Sir Sidney’s 90th year.

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner stars Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn, who also won an Oscar for her role. They were part of the Golden Age of Hollywood, big box office names shimmering with star quality and respectability that Middle America adored. Both on and off screen lovers, the director Stanley Kramer cast them as parents to the daughter. Kramer knew that the issue of a white woman marrying a Black man would make audience goers uncomfortable. Sir Sidney’s character also clashes with his parents when they arrive for the meal and he also clashes with a black character in the film who accuses him of only marrying to improve his own social status. As the film advances what should be a celebratory social occasion becomes fraught with tension and supposition over the couple’s future. This film would challenge both liberal and conservative reactions to dating outside one’s race, forcing all sides to examine the historical significance.

Since the early origins of cinema, the Black man has been depicted in a sinister fashion fuelling both rage and racism. In his excellent documentary I Am Not Your Negro shown at Watershed by our Come the Revolution team, director Raoul Peck chose a scene from D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1918) to illustrate the fear of a Black man. In the scene, a white woman flees to her death over a cliff fearing rape from the director’s stomach churning caricature of a Black man.

One of the first TV interracial kisses was in Star Trek between Captain James Kirk and Lieutenant Nyota Uhura. That kiss was also screened in the year Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was released in 1968, the year of Dr King’s assassination. However, whether it’s real-life or entertainment, society has always been uneasy by love and sex between the races. In Loving (2016) starring Oscar nominated Brit Ruth Negga portrayed the fact that interracial dating was illegal in seventeen US states when the film opened. In the US you could even get yourself killed for even whistling at a white woman, as happened to teenager Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1963. That murder radicalised a generation of black men in the civil rights struggle including Muhammad Ali.

It is easy to think of this as an American problem. However, those of us who have dated outside our race know that this abuse and ostracization can be much found here in the UK too. At a recent Watershed lecture historian and BBC broadcaster David Olusoga himself proud of his own mixed heritage recounted articles in the Liverpool Courier after the 1919 race riots in the city. David barely contained his incredulity as he stated ‘the average negro is closer to an animal than is an average white man.’ Other reprehensible comments and insights can be found in ‘Colonial Soldiers in Europe, 1914-1945: “Aliens in Uniform” in Wartime Societies‘. Another UK example are the Notting Hill riots of 1958 in London which began with racial abuse and violence directed at an interracial married couple.

From the sexually exploitative Mandingo (1975) to violent father and daughter domestic abuse in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991), fierce emotions are often provoked against this background of forbidden love and identity politics. In what should be an expression of passion and affection interracial romance on and off screen can provoke the very opposite.
You can see Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner at the Cinema Rediscovered Festival on Saturday 29th July at Watershed.

Follow Roger on Twitter at @Rogerg44


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