An Analysis of the Film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” based on the Social, Political and Cultural Background of the American Society in 1960’s


Jimmy Sapoetra

The film “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” portrays the social and cultural gap between the White and Black Americans during 1960’s. The issue of race between the Whites and Blacks are represented by the main characters who fall in love with each other (John Prentice and Joanna Drayton). These young characters bring the social and cultural gap between the old and young generations of America. The issue of racial and social status as well as cultural identity is being exposed throughout the film. The relationship between the two young people of a different skin color  is considered “unaccepted” and “taboo” among the American society at that time. Being a Medical Doctor, John had a bad treatment from his society especially from the Whites. Although Joey always introduces him as Doctor Prentice, it seems that people in the society do not respect him just because he is “black”. When the couple is planning to get married the problem occurs especially between the two families, the Drayton and the Prentice.

            Mrs. Drayton is very shocked knowing that her daughter will marry John, a black man. She seems to be very depressed and frustrated facing the reality that her daughter, at the age of 23, would marry someone from a different social status. Her initial reaction when she first met John was “unfriendly” and “humiliating”. Despite the fact that both John and Joey are aware of the problem they are facing, the conversation below shows how Joey’s mother reacted to the awkward situation:

John: Mrs, Drayton aren’t you going to let us sit down before you faint?

Joey: She’s going to faint knowing that you’re a Negro…

Mrs. Drayton: I’m not going to faint, but I’ll sit down

This conversation shows that there is still a prejudice among the white people that they are higher in the social status than the blacks. John is very aware of his status but Joey seems to ignore the reality and always puts on good words about John to her parents. The atmosphere was getting worse when the two of them met Mr. Drayton at the house. Although at first he didn’t show his disapproval of the inter-ethnic relationship, Joey’s father couldn’t hide his emotional stance at the situation. Look at the following excerpt again:

Joey: If you have any objection you could just say it now before you leave for playing golf

Mr. Drayton: Well, what do you expect me to say? I wish you gave me a little more time and it sounds to me that makes sense, doesn’t it?

             Mr. Drayton is obviously shocked by the circumstances and he thinks that her daughter is putting him at the corner by asking for his approval of her marriage with John. The fact that he is a noble man, a Governor of Alabama, has put him in a difficult situation. He is also aware that being the Head of the family he must take the responsibility of her daughter’s future. This is a dillema for him as he conversed with Monsignor Ryan as follows:

Mr. Drayton: Aren’t you shocked when you saw him (John)?

Msgr Ryan: Shocked? Why should I be shocked? I’ve seen many inter racial marriages throughout my life and I don’t see anything special about it

 This adds to Mr. Drayton’s confusion as Monsignor Ryan is his best friend who always gives him advice on any problems they are facing.

            The situation is getting more complicated now that Mrs. Drayton seems to change her mind about John. She cannot hide her impression on the young man who she thinks is smart and charming. Slowly but sure, she started to accept the young man despite the different social status they have. She even admitted that the way they had brought up Joey was wrong. They always told her that the Whites are far more superior than the colored ones. In fact, Mrs. Drayton began to realize that they were wrong about it.

            The interesting part is also being portrayed in the film how Tillie (the maid in the house) reacted to the situation. Being of the same ethnic, Tillie deliberately shows her dislike and disrespectful to John. Perhaps it’s because of the same ethnic that Tillie was trying to tell him to be more careful in making any decision whatsoever in their planned marriage. This is shown at this dialogue:

Tillie: I know what are you up to. Don’t you dare to make any decisions in this house without my approval including Joey’s marriage. Is that clear, Niger?

John: What a surprise to know you

             Towards the end, the film reached its anti-climax after the two parties agree to disapprove the marriage. Hence, something has changed their mind and it changes the plot as well. After a deep thinking and consideration Mr. Drayton finally approved their marriage, which was another shocking decision, especially for Mrs. Drayton, his own wife. In his closing speech, Mr. Drayton said that his daughter’s happiness is far more important than anything else including the different race. As long as they love each other there is no reason why he can’t approve the marriage. This also reminds him of his first love with Christina Drayton, his beloved wife. How they struggled in their marriage life would not be possible if their love wasn’t strong enough. It is love what matters at this point of time, and only love would answer to the problem of racial issue they are facing. After his glorious speech the family and Monsignor Ryan had a lovely dinner together in their beautiful dining table with beautiful smiles on their faces.

 Character Analysis

  1. John Prentice

Dr. John Prentice is a brilliant medical doctor. He was invited to give several lectures in American universities as well as the World Health Organization. He first met Joanna Drayton in Hawaii and suddenly fell in love with the blond girl. He was fully aware of the “problem” they would face regarding the interracial marriage, something which was “taboo” and “unacceptable” at those times in the United States. Although he trusted that Joanna’s parents would accept him he was totally restless and worried especially when Joanna asked him to visit her parents and have a dinner with them. Being a medical doctor, he assumed that his social status would “rescue” him from the prejudice against the Black people. His nervousness and awkwardness was obviously seen during the first meeting with Christina Drayton. He felt that the lady didn’t warmly welcome him to their house which was shown by the way she didn’t let him sit down in the living room. John is proud being a Negro who has a strong identity and dignity, something which was taught by his parents. He is self-confident, optimistic and always sees things positively. In Joanna’s eyes, he is a perfect man and everything about him is interesting.

  1. Joanna Drayton

Joanna (Joey) Drayton is seen as a smart and beautiful girl of 23 years old. Her blue eyes   and blond hair would attract any man at that time. She is an innocent girl who perceives things from her instinct instead of her logical mind. She fell in love instantly with John, after they met for only 20 minutes. Joanna is also stubborn and principled, saying that no matter what her parents’ reaction to her marriage with John, she would do anything to make that happen. Joanna is also a cheerful girl who always believes that everything will be alright as long as they stay positive. She is a kind of modern girl who doesn’t believe that there is such thing as “taboo” in interracial marriage. She believes that all men are born equally, with the same rights, and they have their own choices of whom they would marry with. She is indeed a portrait of a modern and independent woman of today. Her  values about human relationship would be a great inspiration to the later modern society.

  1. Matt Drayton

Matt Drayton (Joanna’s father) is a representative of the old generation in the 1960’s in the United States. He is a liberal man who instills his value of equality to his daughter. When he was forced to approve the interracial marriage of his own daughter he had a conflict with himself. This mirrors the situation in the late 1960’s where the United States was struggling for the equality of all men. One of the accomplishments was the abolition of interracial marriage act in 1967. Matt finally approved his daughter’s marriage due to the fact that he himself was struggling when he first fell in love with Christina. The values that he hold so far have made him aware of the power of love. He believes that only love can conquer the racial differences between John and Joey.

  1. Christina Drayton

Christina is the central character in the film as she plays a very important role in solving the problem of her daughter. At first she was against the interracial marriage but then as she began to know John and how Joanna is very fond of him, her heart changed. The woman has an open minded view regarding marriage although she is very much influenced by her husband as well. For her, Joanna’s happiness is the most important thing. At the end she told her husband that she would do anything she could to make her daughter happy and she would fight against her husband decision if ever he disapproved the marriage.

  1. Prentice

John’s father is a strong man who raised his son with every single penny he earned. The family was a portrait of a marginalized black family in 1960’s in the United States. Having heard his son’s plan to marry a white girl, he strongly objected to the plan and told his son to withdraw the “impossible relationship”. Mr. Prentice has a high pride being a Negro and would not sacrifice it by letting his son marry a white girl. This would be a disaster in terms of their social status since the society would not approve such a relationship whatever the reason is. He had a long discussion with Matt Drayton who happen to share the same beliefs. Finally they admitted that their viewpoint was wrong.

  1. Prentice

The wife of Mr. Prentice who is very wise and sensitive towards the relationship between John and Joanna. The black lady gave inspiring words when she conversed with Matt Drayton. It was because of her that Matt finally approved the marriage despite the fact that they would probably have problems in the society, etc.

  1. Monsignor Ryan

The man was a close friend to Drayton family. He usually plays golf with Matt. He was the first man who supported the interracial marriage. He believes that marriage should be based on love and there should be mutual understanding between the two different races. His wise opinion regarding the marriage can be seen throughout his dialogue with Matt.

  1. Tillie

The maid has worked for more than 30 years in Drayton’s family. The opening was clear that although she comes from a black family, she dissaproves the interracial marriage. She shows her dislike to John from the very beginning. The inner conflict seems to be the problem of the maid. She is aware of her class society which makes her disagree with the marriage between John and Joanna.