Stanley Kramer’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” isn’t about San Francisco, but the city provides the necessary backdrop for a film focusing on interracial marriage. Released in December of 1967 and filmed in the months preceding, “Guess Who” debuted in the wake of the Summer of Love. At the beginning of filming, anti-miscegenation laws existed in umpteen states, and for a film about a black man asking a white family for their daughter’s hand in marriage, San Francisco was as liberal as you could get. As it still is, in a lot of cases.
But “Guess Who” doesn’t get too political. It doesn’t use San Francisco to say anything about the city’s politics. It uses San Francisco to test exactly how liberal a liberal can be when a “problem” shows up in his house. Spencer Tracy’s Matt Drayton is a rather NIMBY liberal newspaper publisher. He’s got a stately home with an unobstructed view of the Golden Gate and an African American maid. He’s raised his daughter well, and Katharine Hepburn’s Christina attests to the fact that they “told her it was wrong to believe that the white people were somehow essentially superior to the black people.” And then there she goes, bringing Sidney Poitier & co. home with her. Harrumph harrumph.
Last year, the Chronicle ran a lengthy feature on the film mostly focusing on the history it has made in its portrayal of an interracial couple on screen. The article stated that director/producer Kramer chose San Francisco exactly because of its liberal reputation. But today, the city’s political whims tend toward issues of sexuality and gentrification of, say, the Mission. Race–or more specifically, a focus on the African American population–takes a backseat.
San Francisco has an undeniably strong population of Asian Americans and Latinos in addition to whites, but African Americans only make up 6.8% of the city’s population. In one part of “Guess Who,” a character says that the 1960s demographic is almost twice that amount. San Francisco may be a little out of touch in that respect, but that doesn’t mean that the issue of controversial marriages isn’t unknown to us.
In fact, the political and personal battles mentioned in the film are still ones San Franciscans strive to overcome. You could say gay marriage is the new interracial marriage, and there’s no better poster child for the campaign than our city. We just had our Prop. 8 battle. In 1967, it was Loving v. Virginia. Before the film hit theaters, the Supreme Court ruled out anti-miscegenation laws. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote, “Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival.” So maybe gay folks can’t procreate with each other (yet), but most of us can agree there’s still a case for ensuring a “basic civil right.” Marriage is still a sticking point, and important one at that for San Francisco’s large queer population.
If “Guess Who” reveals anything extraordinary about the city of San Francisco, it’s that its residents have always (or at least until the ’60s) had high hopes for their country. In one scene, Poitier’s character reveals that his native fianc