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race relations

First of all, how great were the references to Harry and the Hendersons in “30 Rock” last night?

But onto the meat:

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner gets four stars– and conveniently it features four movie stars– Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier, and Hepburn’s niece, Katharine Houghton.  The latter is the least famous, but I thought she did a nice job in the role of the daughter bringing home her whirlwind romance fiance, who happens to be black, to meet Mom and Dad.  (If you’re wondering, this is much better than the recent inverse version, Guess Who, where Ashton Kutcher faces off with his fiancee’s father, Bernie Mac.  John Rote can’t stop watching that movie if it’s on tv.)

I love watching the on-screen dynamic between Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, who were lovers in real life and often played husband and wife.  Their characters’ emotions are on full display in this movie, with a love for each other that even shines through the tension and disagreement about their daughter’s situation.  As progressive and free from racism as Spencer Tracy’s character feels, he faces an internal battle as he considers the practical implications of his daughter marrying a black man, and the challenges and criticism the couple would certainly face.

There is one very incongruent and hilarious scene where the delivery boy and kitchen help jam out dancing to some hip late sixties music– so undignified and out of place in a Hepburn-Tracy movie.  But using our liberal arts educations, Izzy and I deduced after the fact that it was one of several scenes pointing to the spread of post-racial attitudes (guy was white, girl was black). 

Additionally, watching helped me get a question right in Cranium this weekend (Kate Hepburn won Best Actress in 1967).

Inigo Montoya

Inigo Montoya

We love watching movies about awkward race interactions– especially when it involves romance, and thus family hijinx.  Confession: my brothers referred to Izzy as “the Spaniard” when they first learned we were dating. I guess that was before it was serious enough for Israel-bear to be considered a real person and referred to by his name.

The two of us often laugh about being an inter-racial/mixed race/multiracial couple– what’s the correct term for it? But serious discussions do take place, because it’s a fact that I don’t know how it feels to be a minority in the U.S. and to grow up with strong and often-conflicting loyalties to two distinct cultures.  And Izzy doesn’t know what it’s like to be a Southerner.

One way that we continue to learn about the other’s background (and this is recommended even for you less progressive non-bi-racial people) is to watch movies that are Ortega or Rote family classics.   Some are good, and some were apparently only good in my mind as a child.  A recent success that Izzy insisted we move up on the queue was the biopic Selena, about the superstar of Tejana music whose life ended tragically just as she was reaching her prime.

Selena grew up speaking English, yet earned her fame singing in Spanish (and sadly wasn’t able to complete her English crossover album before her death).  In the movie, Selena’s dad has a line that really shed light on something for me, when he’s preparing Selena for the criticism she might receive from the Mexican press because of her less-than-perfect Spanish.  Explaining the unique situation of Mexican-Americans, even those who’ve been in the US for generations, he said, “We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans, both at the same time. It’s exhausting!” 

What a tension to have to be all things to all people, and always face the criticism that comes with not fitting into a crisp definition.  Selena was a rare personality who was able to be herself, and still appeal to people across geographic boundaries and racial definitions.  It’s hard for me to imagine that kind of challenge.

The new Attorney General recently created news by saying we Americans are cowards when it comes to discussing race issues.  (Agree or disagree?)  I think that’s probably true– so it’s helpful when we encounter stories that speak to what we’ve experienced or put words to something that we were too timid or un-self-aware to voice, and help get conversations started.

So. Good talk.

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One thought on “race relations

  1. I remember going to see ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’ on a date when I was in high school. It was kind of a daring date movie for a small town in the late ’60’s.
    Spencer Tracy died really soon either after it was finished or after it was released, and a lot of teenage girls thought it was bittersweet and romantic that his last movie was with Katherine Hepburn, and he had a big speech about love close to the end of the movie.

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