Guess Who directed by Kevin Rodney Sullivan, with Bernie Mac, Ashton Kutcher, Zoe Saldana and Judith Scott. 106 minutes. A Sony Pictures release. Opens Friday (March 25). For venues and times, see Movies, page 91. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
When I brought home an asian girlfriend, my parents were pleasantly polite. But beneath the facade I sensed they didn't want me to marry her.
Guess Who, a comic remake of the 1967 film Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, brings the topic of interracial marriage back to the family dining room. Spencer Tracy and Sidney Poitier have been replaced by Bernie Mac and Ashton Kutcher, but 30 years later the litmus test remains same: what will the parents say?
Since the late 60s, plenty of films have asked that question. Spike Lee's Jungle Fever, for example, tore up the myth of the New York melting pot with its ardent depiction of an Italian-black affair. And Deepa Mehta's Bollywood/Hollywood told the tale of a man pressured by his parents into bringing an Indian date to his sister's wedding. He thinks he's hired a white woman pretending to be Indian but she turns out to be an Indian pretending to be white pretending to be an Indian.
Whatever the twist, the subject inevitably boils down to love versus racism. Rarely explored is the more complicated question of whether love and passion should always triumph over what's often more than just prejudice.
What about the desire for cultural continuity? For my parents, who barely managed to escape the horrors of the Holocaust and the Iron Curtain, it would have felt like a mortal injury if their children had traded a hard-fought-for identity for something as potentially ephemeral and wishy-washy as "love."
Hollywood, though, always casts the issue in black-and-white. Nothing creates more drama and proselytizing than ebony and ivory taking harmony to a whole new level. So the remake of the 1967 classic has a black dad coming to terms with his daughter marrying a white guy.
But what's really striking about Guess Who is just how close it sticks to the original. Thirty-five years later, at least as far as Hollywood is concerned, little has changed.
In order to create the simplest dichotomy - racist society versus young love - there has to be economic parity.
You won't see class issues explored here. In both films, everyone is solidly middle-class. And it's important that the racially incongruous groom be seen by the audience as handsome, polite and well off. This factor is over-drawn in Dinner, where Poitier is a Swiss-based doctor whose genius is renowned around the world.
Guess Who has a bit more fun with its subject. Kutcher's Simon is a successful stockbroker, which pleases Dad (Bernie Mac) until he finds out Simon has recently quit his job under mysterious circumstances.
Having taken class out of the equation (easy to do in film, unlike in real life), we're supposedly confronted by the root of the problem: good old unabashed racial prejudice. Dad has to be made to see that despite his stuffy reservations - mostly due to society's racism, not his - the match is a good one. To this end, Tracy and Mac both play imposing but ultimately likeable fathers, willing to be won over in the end by fairy-tale romance. As Tracy says in Dinner, it's basically about "two wonderful people who happened to fall in love and happened to have a pigmentation problem."
America still agonizes over miscegenation, and Hollywood still simplifies, leaving a complex issue underexplored on the big screen.
And I still don't know what my parents really thought of my high school sweetheart.
Guess Who (Kevin Rodney Sullivan) Rating: NNN
Guess Who isn't so much a remake as a takeoff. It riffs on the 1967 classic Guess Who's Coming To Dinner, in which white parents come to grips with their daughter marrying a black man - only here, black parents have to deal with their daughter marrying a white guy. The premise is flimsy, but Bernie Mac is great as a macho loan officer and bewildered father of the bride. With a dwarfed Ashton Kutcher (boyfriend Simon) by his side, Mac manages to turn the inevitable acceptance of a white son-in-law into something at once tense, tender and farcical. When Dad goads Simon into telling black jokes at a family dinner, we actually cringe. No new territory is explored, but Guess Who mostly avoids sentimentality. Sharp writing and Mac's comic timing make us care about characters so well played, we forget they're clichés.