Starring Sidney Poitier, Spencer Tracy, and Katharine Hepburn.
The movie concerns Joanna Drayton, a young white American woman (Houghton) and a man with whom she’s had a whirlwind romance, Dr. Prentice (Poitier), an African American she met while on a holiday in Hawaii. As the movie opens, they’re at the San Francisco Airport preparing to tell her parents, Matt (Tracy) and Christine (Hepburn)Dayton their plans: to marry and live in Switzerland.
Kramer and Rose intentionally debunked ethnic stereotypes; the young doctor was purposely created idealistically perfect so that the only possible objection to his marrying Joanna would be his race, or the fact she only met him nine days earlier. He has graduated from a top school, begun innovative medical initiatives in Africa, refused to have premarital sex with his fiancée despite her request, and leaves money on his future father-in-law’s desk in payment for a long distance phone call he has made.
The plot is centered on Joanna’s return to her liberal upper class home overlooking the San Francisco Bay. Her mother, while surprised, is supportive from the beginning, but her father isn’t buying the marriage. He is joined in his concerns by the family retainer Tillie (Sanford) and the young Doctor’s father (Glenn), a retired postal worker who flies up to Los Angeles for dinner.
The action builds to a stirring speech by the father, the last by Tracy on film.
Forty years after it came out this movie may seem dated. So much so that Hollywood felt it necessary to loosely remake it with Ashton Kutcher (I love you Ashton, but you are no Sidney Poitier). But upon the heels of the recent US Presidential Election I think its important to reflect on how far we’ve come regarding race relations and how much further we have to go. I’m not the first who has seen the similarities between the characters in this film and the parentage of the US President-Elect. For more on that check out this NY Times article.
Even at the time of the film one might be more concerned with the speed of the marriage (having only known each other ten days and needing an answer that night before they fly off to NYC and then to Geneva) then the race difference, but let’s factor that out and just chalk it up as a plot device to get the action going. There were some interesting remarks throughout the film that I think particularly important to note upon. The first was said by Dr. Prentice (played by Sidney Poitier) regarding why he fell in love with Joanna.
Dr. Prentice “It’s not that our color difference doesn’t matter to her, it’s that there is no difference to her”
I think this is an important quote to piece apart, because there are different levels to it. On a fundamental level there is no difference among us because we are all God’s creatures and are all endowed with spiritual capacity, and so every person should be able to befriend anyone and talk with anyone and connect with anyone because of that inherent unity of us all being people. That being said, we do have differences, and those differences should not be erased. They are what make us beautiful. I think the following quote illustrates the thought well:
“Let us look rather at the beauty in diversity, the beauty of harmony, and learn a lesson from the vegetable creation. If you behold a garden in which all the plants were the same as to form, color and perfume, it would not seem beautiful to you at all, but, rather, monotonous and dull. The garden which is pleasing to the eye and which makes the heart glad, is the garden in which are growing side by side flowers of every hue, form and perfume, and the joyous contrast of color is what makes for charm and beauty.
…”The diversity in the human family should be the cause of love and harmony, as it is in music where many different notes blend together in making the perfect chord. If you meet those of different race and color from yourself, do not mistrust them and withdraw into your shell of conventionality, but rather be glad and show them kindness. Think of them as different colored roses growing in the beautiful garden of humanity, and rejoice to be among them.”
~ ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 52-3.
I want to add that this quote was from the early 1900s. We cannot diminish our differences, nor can we ignore the fact of the history of pain and suffering caused by different races and ethnicities fighting or oppressing one another. Nor can we pretend that it is not still happening today. That being said if we want to change the world, if we want to improve it and to heal these wounds between us, to truly unite humanity then it begins through the actions of people like Joanna Drayton and John Prentice who celebrate their love for one another and the diversity of their backgrounds. Blame will just keep us apart, but we individuals can work to be open minded and to treat all people with love and respect.
This film, in addition to being about an interracial couple, is about a family whose ideals are being tested. The parents, Matt and Christina Drayton (played by Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn) are San Francisco liberals who raised their daughter to believe in the equality of races and yet it had never occurred to them that their daughter would actually want to marry someone of a different race. Then it was time to reflect and each hesitated before confirming their ideals.
I think this happens to us all at some time in our lives. It is easy to espouse an ideal in words, when it is a theory, something that applies to society in general, rather than to ourselves in specific. It is easy to say we will care for our fellow man, but how many people still go hungry? It is easy to say what we believe, but what about acting on what we believe? In this film first Joanna, and then her mother, and finally her father decided to take the step toward action on their beliefs, an action which was easy and natural for Joanna but a bigger challenge for Matt than he would have thought.
This film, as part of the plot, Dr. Prentice required the Draytons to give consent in order for him to marry Joanna. In this modern day many people balk at the idea of children asking for their parents’ consent to marry, and even in the film Mrs. Drayton seemed confused by it. But I think Dr. Prentice had a good point. It would be hard enough for the couple to deal with the prejudices of society and the pressures of the ignorant, to then also have to deal with the disunity in the family. In order to be strong enough to deal with the challenges of an interracial marriage at that time they needed to have the support of their family for peace of mind as well as a haven to return to in times of stress. Asking for consent was a way to build unity in the family, a pre-requisite to building unity in society.
Those are just a few of my thoughts. What are yours?