'Dinner' and a Show: Race, Romance in Pop Culture Just months after Loving v. Virginialegalized interracial marriage, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner broke Hollywood's official ban on interracial romance onscreen.
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'Dinner' and a Show: Race, Romance in Pop Culture

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'Dinner' and a Show: Race, Romance in Pop Culture

'Dinner' and a Show: Race, Romance in Pop Culture

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. And today, we consider interracial marriage in America and how much things have changed.

Four years ago, on this day, June 12, 1967, the Supreme Court struck down state laws that banned interracial marriage. It was called the Loving Decision, named from Mildred and Richard Loving, a couple who were banned from the state of Virginia for daring to live there as man and wife.

But there's another reason that 1967 was a landmark year for interracial romance. Six months after that Supreme Court ruling, the film "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" premiered in theaters. The plot is simple: a young couple wants to get married. She's young and beautiful. He is a doctor, a black doctor. Both sets of parents have a hard time accepting their engagement.

(Soundbite of movie "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner")

Mr. SIDNEY POITIER (Actor): (As DR. John Wade Prentice) Mrs. Drayton, I'm medically qualified, so I hope you wouldn't think it presumptuous if I say you ought to side down before you fall down on me.

Ms. KATHERINE HEPBURN (Actress): (As Christina Dayton): He thinks you're gonna faint because he's a negro.

Ms. KATHERINE HOUGHTON (Actress): (As Joanna Dayton): Well, I don't think I'm going to faint. But I'll sit down anyway.

NORRIS: That was Katherine Hepburn there along with Katherine Houghton and Sidney Poitier, they play the young couple in love.

There was initially some question as to whether southern movie theaters would play "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" if it included an onscreen kiss.

And to talk about how interracial marriage onscreen has changed, we're joined in the studio by Bob Mondello. Hi, Bob.

BOB MONDELLO: Hi, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, Bob, I always thought that Hollywood actually liked to shock audiences. What was so different about this film?

MONDELLO: Well, there was a code. It was called the Motion Picture Association Production Code of 1934. And it specifically addressed this question. It stated: miscegenations, sex relationships between the white and black races is forbidden in film. That's what they're up against. They had to, sort of, break through that wall. They were doing it very carefully this time. They did it with really big stars. They did it…

NORRIS: So they had some insurance.

MONDELLO: Exactly. And they broke through it also because it was a comedy. But the big trick was doing something that was an affirmative picture of a black-white relationship. Because prior to that, it had always been negative in line with this code. If you showed this kind of thing, then you had to have it in sadly.

NORRIS: So you're talking about things like - films like "Show Boat," for instance.

MONDELLO: That's right. And also, "Pinky" and "Imitation of Life," all kind of pictures that had played prior to this one. And had been very careful about having it be a story that could end in a very negative way for the couple, thereby affirming what were regarded as all-American values.

NORRIS: How was it actually received?

MONDELLO: Well, the audience did not have problems with it. I was shown in the South, too. There were a few theater chains that decided they weren't going to do it initially, but they ended up doing it. And it was very well received and it won Academy Awards and was a very big deal.

NORRIS: So you mentioned that the studio had some insurance. They had big stars in this case. It sounded like this is an act of courage and also an act of provocation. Did they, indeed, challenge and do away with that production code?

MONDELLO: Totally. At that point, you could deal with this issue. It was not longer an issue to deal with this topic. It didn't exactly open the floodgates or anything; you didn't get hundreds of pictures about it. But you did have pictures - almost immediately - start to deal with that kind of topic in a comic way at least. Something like "Blazing Saddles," it had Cleavon Little and Madeleine Kahn.

I mean, during the next few years, things loosened up. But they didn't get real loose. I think Spike Lee, when he approached it in "Jungle Fever," for instance, with Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra, he was dealing with the taboo, that he told Ebony Magazine that year that the last taboo is still taboo. And so you have to deal with it very carefully.

NORRIS: And dealing it from both sides also from the perspective not just of Wesley Snipes but the woman who plays his wife on screen, Lonette McKee, and how she and her friends…

MONDELLO: That's right.

NORRIS: …react to this.

(Soundbite of movie "Jungle Fever")

Unidentified Woman 1: I'm gonna start dating white men.

Unidentified Woman 2: Stop it y'all. I'm not.

Unidentified Woman 1: It's true.

Unidentified Woman 2: I'm not dating no white man.

Unidentified Woman 1: It ain't no good black man out there.

Unidentified Woman 2: Oh, come on. No good.

Unidentified Woman 3: There are.

Unidentified Woman 1: Drug addicts in jail, homos…

NORRIS: So Bob, I know we're talking about a 40-year stretch, but where have we come in terms of how Hollywood deals with interracial romance from 1967 to 2007?

MONDELLO: Well, it's gotten better. It's gotten more casual. But it tends to be still pictures about race as opposed to it being treated entirely casually. I think television is better at this than Hollywood is. If Hollywood makes a picture and it's a black and white relationship, then it becomes about that. Whereas, in something like "My Name is Earl," nobody even thinks about the fact that there's a black-white couple there, it just is, you know? On some level, that's what Hollywood needs to get to, but isn't there yet.

NORRIS: Why does Hollywood still tiptoe on this subject?

MONDELLO: I really think it's just a commercial thing. That they're really worried that - you know, stars are worried about doing a picture that is going to hurt their popularity. Producers are worried that their mega-billion-dollar picture - I mean, it's not really that expensive, but it's close - will have a harder time at the box office, why introduce this issue unless your picture is basically about that issue. I think that's what happened.

NORRIS: Sounds like it's still a taboo.

MONDELLO: It is sort of a taboo. I'm not convinced that it's the last taboo anymore now that "Brokeback Mountain" came along. And I suppose 40 years -years from now, we could be talking about whether that had the effect because there's been no logjam breaking up yet. But I think there are - I think there's no question it is still a taboo.

NORRIS: Thanks, Bob.

MONDELLO: Pleasure.

NORRIS: That was NPR's Bob Mondello. And Bob has compiled a list of films and plays that deal with interracial romance. You can find that and watch clips of "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?" at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

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