Critical Analysis of the Movie 'Guess Who'
The issue of interracial relations was already covered in Kramer’s film of 1967 Guess Who's Coming to Dinner where romantic relationships of a white woman and a black man were placed at the center of the plot. The couple arrives to the girl’s parents who are unaware of their daughter’s boyfriend’s skin color. The middle class white parents are aghast to realize that their daughter is about to marry a black man, even though he is a well-off, respected doctor. Nearly half a century later, when American society did much to work out the issues of racial discrimination and prejudice, Kevin Rodney Sullivan decided to tackle the problem again to see how much had been done in this regard. Guess Who? (2005) features a reverse situation when a white young man arrives to visit his colored girlfriend’s parents to find her father being strongly opposed to their romance. Sullivan’s Guess Who? uses a humorous form to reveal what has been done and what is still left to address in the issue of interracial relations.
Historically, interracial coupling has always been not favored in societies. In the beginning of the twentieth century, thirty-one US states prohibited interracial marriages (Romano 2). It should be noted that interracial marriages became legal only in 1967. However, the issue still needed time to settle down and people needed to adjust as the prejudice was too strong. A reason why such a convention against race mixing was formed was the idea that slavery should be prescribed for one race. Anti-miscegenation laws were made to protect superiority and property of whites. After the regulations were taken for mothers to determine their children’s legal status, white men could freely have relationships with black women because the children from such liaisons could not inherit any white men’s property. Conversely, the children begotten by white mothers and black fathers also could not be legally qualified as participants of the white society due to the ‘one-drop’ rule (Romano 4).
Having spanned for four centuries, slavery probably needed as much time to eradicate all repercussions. At the beginning of the civil rights’ struggle, intimacy between a black male and a white female was the biggest evil. Slowly, this taboo was lifted. By the 1990s, interracial relationships were approved by 83% of black-skinned people and 43% of those of European origin (Beeman 707). However, years of discrimination had taken their toll and certain stereotypes were formed. In A Content Analysis of Institutional Racism in US Films, 1980-2001, Angie K. Beeman reports that African Americans are often portrayed as more sexual and less romantic and low paid or reluctant to work (705). More to say, in comparison to whites, blacks often find it more difficult to move upward the social ladder because of institutionalized racism. Furthermore, Beeman informs that interracial coupling is very poorly covered in films, with only 1% out of 2,944 films featuring black-and-white couples (706). Although the reason for it can be a small percentage of interracial couples in real life, the matter should be addressed promptly because such a distortion hides institutional racism and people believe that there is no problem with it.
In Guess Who?, the story line revolves around a timid white stockbroker Simon who has just quit his job and his African American girlfriend Theresa whose father wants her to find a man with a solid job. Inasmuch as interracial friendship and interracial relations are widely discussed on different levels and in different contexts, many people expect the problem to be partially solved, or at least not to be valid for them. It is vividly illustrated by Theresa’s line of behavior. Her parents brought her up, teaching her to judge a person for one’s deeds rather than one’s skin color. Therefore, she supposes that her boyfriend’s whiteness cannot be an issue and never brings up the subject. However, barriers are always present in interracial relationships, even if people are not aware of them (Orbe and Harris).
On the one hand, Sullivan touches upon a subject rare in Hollywood; black girls seldom have white boyfriends in American films (Beeman 706). On the other hand, socially, such a configuration is more acceptable. Historically, white males could never be deterred from having extramarital relations with black women. A white man used to be entitled to the position of power and could have what he wanted, including women of any color. It indicated his extreme maleness and domination. Beeman refers to stereotypical difference in portraying white and black males. African Americans are usually portrayed as brutal, verging on violence males who build their relationship on sexual attraction rather than tender intimacy; they are less supportive financially and emotionally. Meanwhile, ‘white’ men are shown very emotionally supportive and able to provide for their families (Beeman 705).
To this extent, Simon and Theresa as a couple correspond to a common stereotype of a sexy black girl and a financially stable and emotionally supportive white man. However, they manage to avoid the usual race-related barriers such as stereotypes about each other’s race, mistrust, and a lack of intimacy and emotionality. Their relationships are stable and caring. They trust each other and regard each other with the utter respect. The problems start when they collide with social forces represented by Theresa’s family.
Sullivan intentionally makes Simon completely opposite to Percy. In this way, he shows that it is not enough for a new couple to be open-minded about their race and relations. Their relatives and friends should also be taken into account. Simon and Theresa are the people who were brought up after the civil rights’ movement gained its victory and equal rights for all the people. Even though not all people are treated equally in reality, several generations of children were brought up without racial prejudice. At least, they are eager to start interracial relations. In Guess Who?, Theresa’s sister also chooses a boyfriend of another origin, and Percy frowns upon it. Thus, parents can see the fruits of the massive awareness-building work and find themselves unprepared for it.
In the movie, Percy reveals himself as a racist, and he needs to overcome all the barriers common for interracial couples such as stereotypes about another race and mistrust. When Percy and his wife meet Simon, they falsely assume that the black taxi driver is Theresa’s boyfriend. Percy ignores Simon and because of his skin color, he treats him as a serviceperson. From the get-go, Percy is suspicious of Simon and he does not trust him. Much to Percy’s displeasure, Simon is not an alpha male. He is brainy, he works hard, and he has a promising career but at the same time, he is tender, loving, and soft. Simon is a flipped image of Theresa’s father. Thus, Sullivan plays with racial stereotypes not only in regards to dating and marriage but also to male image.
In Guess Who?, Percy lays an emphasis on job and respectability. He has achieved a lot with his hard work and he wants his daughter to have a life not worse than she currently has. In terms of his managerial position, a beautiful house in a respectable area, and an expensive car, Percy refutes a stereotype about a ‘poor black man.’ That is the reason why he is offended at the joke about things that a black man cannot get such as “a black eye, a fat lip, and a job” (Guess Who?). Percy is a living example that a black man is as good as any other person and he is able to provide for his family.
Simultaneously, Percy has all the other markers of a dominant male. He is physically big and assertive in communication with others. Moreover, he is an avid sports fan and he has other masculine hobbies such as NASCAR races. Therefore, he finds Simon rather effeminate. Even besides being white, Simon has other drawbacks such as aversion to any sports. When choosing what kind of sports to lie about, Simon says that he used to run NASCAR races, explaining it later to Theresa as “the whitest sport on the planet”, to which Theresa replies, “Not anymore” (Guess Who?). The situation in society has changed, and in many areas, racial discrimination is no longer present.
The fact that Percy lays down the rules and makes Simon follow them signals that the status of a black man has changed. Percy and Simon build their relations not on the race but on the respect to age and status. Percy is Theresa’s father and this single fact is able to make his daughter’s white beau respect him. Therefore, Simon does not object to sharing bed with Percy because he understands that a way to Theresa’s heart lies through her father’s approval, and if Percy wants to guard Simon and not let him sleep with Theresa, he should comply.
Thus, as a couple, Theresa and Simon have to withstand the social pressure from their relatives, friends, and colleagues more than any interpersonal barriers. Usually, socially acceptable partner choices include people of the same background, social class and status as well as race. While the end of racial segregation made it possible for people of any descend to get similar education and, therefore, background, and thus improve their social status, race has still been a factor of debate. Many people are still ridden by myths and prejudices that interracial relations are doomed (Orbe and Harris 211). In this regard, Theresa and Simon come from different backgrounds. They have different professional spheres: Theresa is an artist and Simon is a stockbroker. In addition, Theresa comes from a middle-class two-parent family that resides in suburbs in a separate house. Meanwhile, Simon’s mother is a single mother who had to juggle a handful of jobs to provide for her son. Thus, in terms of psychological well-being, Simon is in a less favorable position, and both he and Percy are aware of it.
Inasmuch as the majority of people consider “a homogamous approach” the best tactics in choosing a relationship partner, interracial couples experience great pressure (Orbe and Harris 206). Theresa confides in her father about hearing some comments behind their backs about their interracial relationships. She realizes that she will have to put up with them probably for her whole life. However, at that time, they are not aware that Simon has quit a well-paid job because of his boss’s piece of advice against marrying a black-skinned girl. Thus, both Simon and Theresa have negative experience because of their interracial relations but they are ready to deal with it.
Percy is reluctant to admit that he dislikes Simon because of his skin color. Instead, he hides behind his talks about not trusting him and not liking him because they do not share similar interests. Percy places a big importance on monetary resources and expects his daughter’s future husband to provide. The issues of stereotypes, fear of having a jobless partner, and mistrust coincide in the situation of Simon’s quitting job. His lie was a response to high expectations of Percy’s. Being aware of how much job is important for Percy and his approval depends on it, Simon wants to bring up the subject after the visit to Theresa’s parents. However, Percy’s distrust and suspiciousness reveal Simon’s lie earlier than he intended.
Believing that interracial relationships are dead-end road, family and friends may often attempt to discourage the couple. To this effect, family sanctions work. Orbe and Harris inform:
Sanctions include (a) meeting with potential partners to discourage interest, (b) becoming a matchmaker and selecting more appropriate mates, (c) offering unsolicited advice and opinions to discourage interest, and (d) punishing by withdrawing emotional and relational support. (208)
One of the tactics Theresa’s father Percy tries to use is getting to know Simon better to find some flaws in him and discourage Theresa. By spending a weekend together, Percy attempts to discourage his daughter from dating the unreliable, as he claims, white man. Constantly provoking Simon, Percy pulls him into telling racial jokes and racing cars. As a final blow, Percy tells about Simon’s lie about being unemployed. As a result, Theresa sees Simon in a different light and they are on the verge of ending their relationship.
According to Orbe and Harris, there are four stages that couples of different origins have to go though in order to succeed (208). Guess Who? highlights three stages implying the last one, as Simon and Theresa intend to get married and have long-termed relationships. The movie opens at Stage One, when partners are aware of “a mutual attraction and possibility for intimate involvement” (Orbe and Harris 208). Simon and Theresa are aware of their different races but all the more they are attracted to each other. At the beginning of the movie, they share a household and plan to get married. Theresa’s parents’ renewal of vows is going to serve as a suitable occasion to announce about their engagement.
At the Racial Awareness Stage, Simon and Theresa experience social pressure when they decide to let their family know about their relationships and they face stereotypes and prejudice. The impact their interracial relationship creates is reflected in the scene with Theresa and her sister Keisha. With tears in her eyes Keisha says, “From now on, no matter what I do, if I crash Dad’s car, if I rob a bank, if I burn this house down, I won’t be the one who brought home the white boy! Thank you!” (Guess Who?). The viewer hears sarcasm in Keisha’s words and realizes how Percy’s talking about all people being equal differs from his actual attitude to a person who is about to enter his family.
Thus, Theresa and Simon move to Stage Two that involves coping with arising situations due to their different skin color. Orbe and Harris write that a common strategy for the couple at this stage is “pulling toward each other and away from others in their interpersonal networks” (209). While at Theresa’s parents’ home, Theresa and Simon cling to each other and hold each other’s back. Even sleeping separately they understand why they do it and want to do everything to get Theresa’s parents’ approval and be together. Simon’s quitting job also belongs to the type of coping behavior. In such a way, he tries to protect their relationship. Being fed up with his boss’ derogatory commenting on his interracial relationships, Simon takes a decision to leave the job, even knowing that a job factor is crucial for his future father-in-law.
A visit to the Jones helps Simon and Theresa re-evaluate their relationship and eventually decide that they want to stand up for it. When Theresa and Percy had realized what it took Simon to lie and the reason behind it, they saw that this relationship had future and it whould be able to defend itself before race-related hardships. It signals Stage Three, and Orbe and Harris call it Identity Emergence (209). Sorting out their trusting issues Theresa and Simon realize they love each other too much to separate, they do not care about the problems arising from their interracial relationships, and they are ready to work on them. As a result of their mutual understanding, Percy gives his approval by introducing Simon to the guests at the party the following way: “he’s broke, unemployed, and he’s white. But he loves my Theresa and that’s all right with us” (Guess Who?).
The engagement propels Simon and Theresa to the final stage, Maintenance. At this stage, partners are already committed to long-term relationships and they “must work through their differences and defend themselves from the external forces attempting to dissolve the relationship” (Orbe and Harris 210). The stage is left behind the scenes. The viewer presumes that Simon and Theresa will work on their relationships and stay together. The last sequence of the movie shows the video from the Jones’ wedding anniversary party and audible commentary from the family. Simon feels relaxed in the presence of Theresa’s parents and puts his feet on the coffee table while watching the video. Meanwhile, Percy keeps playing the role of the patriarch and orders him to remove his feet from the table. Simon complies, demonstrating respect. Thus, Percy and Simon continue their interaction of respect and patronizing, which overturns the previously established order of humiliation and prejudice between blacks and whites.
Percy and his family have come a long way to the social and psychological position they occupy now. They are affluent and involved into social life such as a prestigious job and sports. The Jones are also more psychologically relaxed when they hear racial jokes than African Americans used to be about it. Generally, Percy accepts Simon when he says, “Everyman gets to choose his destiny no matter what his father did” (Guess Who?). Thus, he agrees to accept a boy from a single parent family as his daughter’s future life partner. Furthermore, Percy understands that now he should not let the history of slavery and the resulting prejudice against white people poison his relationships with Theresa and her sweetheart.
In their relationship, Simon reveals himself as a person of more racial awareness than Theresa. Although Theresa came across racial prejudices due to their relations and saw frowns and negative attitude, she dismissed it in regards to her parents. Meanwhile, Simon was more mature and able to see where problems might come from. Not only does Simon expect issues to arise, but he is also ready to confront them, as he did with his boss by quitting after he had been advised against marrying a black girl.
Sullivan’s Guess Who? gives another take on the issue of interracial relations laying emphasis on the side of African Americans. White people’s prejudice is mentioned in an indirect way, through Simon’s boss. Meanwhile, the prejudice of African Americans takes the central place and a humorous twist. Sullivan reveals that even when people proclaim their awareness and readiness to treat each other equally, they might not actually be doing it in fact. Thus, people of older generation treat racial equality more as a received knowledge, rather than perceived truth. However, young people who were brought up differently and know about segregation only from books have higher chances to overcome institutionalized prejudice to people of different skin color and origin.