Judging Through Your Food
by Renuka Koilpillai
Although many of the characters Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967) are self-proclaimed progressives, it soon becomes clear that they are prejudiced against the biracial couple. Some characters such as Matt Drayton and Mr. Prentice really believe that the trouble that John and Joey would cause is not worth their marriage. On a different note, Ms. Tilley is worried that John will become too conceited if he marries a white women. Finally, John believes that all of the parents will likely be shocked by the announcement and wishes to break the news as easily as possible. Specifically, the film unravels the racial implicit bias and feeling that many of the characters have through their choices of food and drink. These choices are both deliberately chosen by the characters to express their attitudes or are symbolic representations of how they feel.
Many of the characters are vocal about their attitude or concerns toward John and Joey’s relationship. As a result, they explicitly try to express these concerns through food. The first instance we see of this is when Tillie talks to Joey in her room and says “I don’t care to see a member of my own race get above himself” (10:10). From this, it is explicitly understood that she believes John will think better of himself than other black people because he married a white woman. This same sentiment is reinforced when Joey asks Tillie to make a special dinner for John’s visit. In response, Tillie suggests making celery soup, a pretty basic meal. Although Joey rejects this idea and suggest Turtle soup instead, the audience sees how Tillie deliberately expresses her opinion through her food choices. We see another instance of this when John plays with his egg salad sandwich while Joey talks about his concern over her parent’s reaction. John picks up the sandwich but starts to squeeze the edges and open up the slices of bread for almost an entire minute (17:38-18:28). By doing so, John is building up the suspense in the scene for the audience but is also visibly nervous about the conversation. These are both two examples where the characters deliberately express their emotions through their actions with food.
In addition to characters who explicitly express their emotions through their food, the film also makes a statement indirectly about their implicit bias with their food choices. Matt Drayton’s bias against the couple is evident within the first half of the movie; however, when he orders fresh Oregon boysenberry sherbet he states “this is not the stuff…you know it’s not bad. I kinda like it” (57:00). He had hoped to get a flavour that he had gotten before, and although it was not the same one, he still enjoyed this flavour. During this dialogue, there is a close up shot on Matt’s face, and his reactions are over exaggerated. These reactions foreshadow how he eventually reacts to John and Joey’s relationship because they are extremely similar to each other. Finally, the directors divide the parents by their drinks in order to exhibit their differences in perspective. For example, both mothers believe that the relationship is a positive thing; their stance is unifying between their two races, which is signaled by the fact that they both drink sherry. However, the two fathers believe that the relationships is a bad idea. Because this isn’t unifying, they have different drinks; Mr. Prentice gets a bourbon, while the two other white men ask for scotch. This is additionally shown through the placement of each character in the living room. The two mothers sit together on the sofa, while the two fathers sit opposite each other.
Whether it be the choice of the characters to express their attitudes about the biracial couple or the film makers decision to do it, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Exposes people’s otherwise veiled beliefs about biracial dating through the character’s actions with food. Although this technique is subtle, it mirrors the nature of implicit biases in that it effects the overall situation without always being noticeable.
Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?. Dir. Stanley Kramer. Perf. Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, Katharine Hepburn, Katharine Houghton. Columbia Pictures Corporation, 1967. DVD.