In 1967 Stanley Kramer directed the socially challenging film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Sporting a cast of acting legends like Spencer Tracey, Sidney Poitier, and Katharine Hepburn, the then controversial film tackled heavy racial issues with a mix of humor and drama. Now in 2005, the movie has been remade into a wacky, throwaway comedy starring Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac. I’m taking that as a positive, a sign that despite frequent intolerance to the contrary, we really have come a long way since 1967.
The remake, its title shortened simply to Guess Who, attempts to turn the concept of the original film on its head by having a black family face the entry of a white boyfriend into their world. Whitey McWhite is played by Ashton Kutcher, who abandons his annoying trucker hats in favor of a look fashioned in the likeness of Howdy Doody. Kutcher, much like Ben Stiller before him, is off with his girlfriend to meet her parents. His girlfriend happens to be black and her dad doesn’t know he’s white.
Her father is Bernie Mac, though for the sake of the film he’s calling himself Percy Jones. Bernie Mac isn’t much of an actor, but he’s great at playing himself. Luckily, Bernie just being himself is something pretty good. At first he tries to be open minded, welcoming the painfully white Kutcher into his home. Though at home he preaches acceptance, at the office he’s ashamed and tells his co-worker’s that his daughter is dating a Jet cover boy named Jamal. Things soon go awry, racial tension flairs, and Kutcher and Mac end up painfully at odds.
Of course right now you’re asking yourself if we really need another fiancée meets in-laws movie, and of course we don’t. Meet the Parents has more than adequately covered that genre. But by throwing in an honest, well-drawn racial subtext, Guess Who is saved from becoming a lame duck clone of the similar films that have come before it. A dinner table scene in which Kutcher is cajoled into telling racist black jokes to his girlfriend’s intolerant granddad, stands out amidst weaker elements like faux Father of the Bride Francs and habitual, Focker-like deception. When in a moment of tension Kutcher convincingly cries, “No matter what I do I’m a racist!” you know the movie has hit its stride.
Though it often risks becoming a bad parody mix of Meet the Parents and Father of the Bride, Guess Who successfully walks a fine line between the corny and the sincere. From time to time it dips into the world of lame, ripped off, cheesy, comedic bits, but always snaps back to being a well structured comedy that capably tackles a few heavy racial issues in a responsible, stereotype free manner. In that sense, it’s a welcome relief from racially driven mockeries like Bringing Down the House or anything starring Chris Rock. I’m sick of seeing white people dance funny, and even sicker of seeing elderly white people discover the booty shaking pleasures of hip hop. Guess Who dances around it, but ultimately resorts to none of that. Black people do not all drive down the street blaring rap music, nor are they in general criminals. This is a movie in which the black lead is a big fan of NASCAR and it is the painfully white fop who teaches him how to dance.
Kutcher shows flashes of energy in the film, but more often than not comes up blank. For Demi’s baby daddy, blank isn’t so bad since it means he’s not hurting the story by standing in frame, though he’s not adding a lot to it either. Of course, with Bernie Mac there he doesn’t need to. Mac carries the film with his gruff, protective, fatherly humor and inability to deal with change. He pleasantly brings to mind George Banks and Cliff Huxtable, two of entertainment culture’s most endearing father figures. Mac captures that same sort of cranky, lovable warmth found in those characters almost effortlessly. Whether he’s throwing Kutcher out in the rain or playing drunken football he’s still entirely huggable.
Guess Who isn’t breaking down any barriers that haven’t already been broken down for decades but it is a fun, responsible comedy that avoids some of the worst racial clichés crushing audience IQs in modern movies. It lacks the significance or moral fiber of its predecessor, yet Guess Who still manages to say a worthwhile thing or two about tolerance and interracial dating while remaining light and entertaining. Though it may be briefly painful to see a Sidney Poitier role redone by Ashton Kutcher, it’s hard not to enjoy the way Guess Who shakes out. The jokes may be weak, but the social context the gags broadcast with them comes in surprisingly strong.