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Skin color or character? 'Guess Who' answers the question with a fat wallet

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Guess who's having a nightmare? Ashton Kutcher awakes not to Demi Moore, but Bernie Mac.

To the Mississippi jury that acquitted the brutal murderers of 14-year-old Emmett Till in 1955, it was a capital offense for a black boy to whistle at a white woman. Sexual anxiety, the dread that virtuous Southern belles were in danger of defilement by swarthy savages, accounted for much racial violence of the past century. Lynching was a reaction to lurid fears of interracial rape. So were laws against miscegenation, cohabitation of white and black. It was not until 1967, when arch-segregationist George Wallace was still a viable candidate for president, that the United States Supreme Court ruled state laws against intermarriage unconstitutional.

In the same year, Stanley Kramer directed Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, an exercise in cinematic sanctimony that lured audiences by lauding them, congratulating them on their enlightened tolerance. How virtuous we are to root for deep affection over shallow social convention. When a stranger comes to dinner and claims the hand of fair Katharine Houghton, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn are reluctant to welcome a Negro into the family, even if he happens to be handsome, intelligent, and articulate Sidney Poitier. But the movie makes it clear that love can and should transcend race.

Much has changed in the past 38 years, and it is hard to imagine making a new movie out of a need to preach that the color of a prospective son-in-law's skin is less important than the content of his character. The marriage of Democrat James Carville and Republican Mary Matalin now seems more shocking than that of Kofi Annan and Nane Lagergren. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? survives as a quaint relic of agitation toward integration, which is why Guess Who is not exactly the inverted remake it claims to be. Though William Rose, who wrote the screenplay for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, is credited for the storyline of the new film, Guess Who is a family farce that has more in common with Meet the Fockers than with any drama from the Civil Rights era. It is not race as much as the ancient tensions between father and suitor that threaten the union of black Theresa Jones and white Simon Green. Yes, it is now a white man (Kutcher) whose matrimonial intentions toward a black woman (Saldana) encounter opposition from her family. But, for all the success of the black bourgeoisie, being African-American today does not mean what being white meant in 1967. Vernon Jordan still has a harder time than a white porter trying to catch a cab.

Guess Who

Dir. Kevin Rodney Sullivan; writ. David Ronn, Jay Scherick, Peter Tolan, based on the screenplay by William Road; feat. Bernie Mac, Ashton Kutcher, Zoe Saldana (PG-13)
The chief loan officer at a bank in Cranford, New Jersey, Percy Jones (Mac) is proud of his prosperity. Determined that his daughter be supported in the style to which she has become accustomed, he secretly investigates the financial status of her beau. The fact that Simon is white leads to a medley of jokes about racial stereotypes, and Percy is appalled at Simon's lack of talent for either music or sports. "A man who don't play sports is not a man," insists Percy, whose subculture defines manhood differently than Simon's. But Percy's paternal protectiveness seems directed at any rival for his daughter's affections. After a series of farcical tests, including a go-cart race and a night spent together on the basement couch, Simon and Percy bond. In a victory of Y chromosomes over race, the two acquisitive professional men discover they have more in common with each other than with the women who befuddle them.

Indifferent to the victims of racial injustice, Guess Who affirms the value of big cars, big houses, and big wedding ceremonies. Its title is misleading not only because the film has little in common with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? It is a predictable celebration of affluence that leaves its viewer little to guess.



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