And now for a rare political comment.


I tend not to get too political here, but this comment from Ezra Klein, via Ross Douthat, seems worthy of mention here:

Towards the end of the 1967 movie “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Dr. John Wane Prentice, played by Sydney Poitier, sits down with his fiance’s white father, played by Spencer Tracy. “Have you given any thought to the problems your children will have?” Tracy asks. “Yes, and they’ll have some…[But] Joey feels that all of our children will be President of the United States,” replies Poitier. “How do you feel about that?” asks Tracy, looking skeptically at the black man in front of him. “I’d settle for Secretary of State,” Poitier laughs.

Written in the late-1960s, the exchange was, indeed, laughable. The Civil Rights Act had been passed three years prior. Two years before, the Watts riots had broken out, killing 35. Martin Luther King Jr. would be assassinated a year later. But here we are, almost exactly 40 years after theatergoers heard that exchange. The last two Secretaries of State were African-American and, as of tonight, the next president may well be a black man. John Prentice’s children would probably still be in their late-30s. They could still grow up to be cabinet officials or even presidents, but they would not necessarily be trailblazers. . . .

This is, indeed, a transition worth noting — and even celebrating, as far as it goes. I happen to think that both Obama and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner are vastly over-rated, and have earned their reputations largely because white liberals feel a need to make a point, considerations of political and artistic merit be damned. But the parallel Klein draws between the 40-year-old dialogue and the political reality of the last seven years is definitely interesting.

That said, I cannot help but wonder if all the editors who came up with “Obama makes history” headlines last night would have done the same for Clinton if a couple hundred delegates had gone her way instead of the other way. The first female presidential nominee would be just as historical as the first black presidential nominee, would it not? And I wonder what films people might have invoked if Clinton had come out on top.

It is also interesting to consider that both Poitier and Obama are the children of British subjects — Poitier’s parents came from the Bahamas, Obama’s father came from Kenya — and thus, unless I’m missing something, neither of them is descended from, say, the slaves that were liberated by the American Civil War. (For that matter, Colin Powell, the second-to-last Secretary of State, was the son of Jamaican immigrants, so his parents were British subjects too.) So depending on what Dr. John Wade Prentice’s own background was, it might still be possible for his children to blaze a trail or two.

And for what it’s worth, this certainly isn’t the first time someone has made some sort of connection between Sidney Poitier and Barack Obama. See here, here and here, for starters.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).

  • Anonymous

    Peter,

    Stay away from political comments. You’re good at movies; but politics….not so much.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02504120709183671153 fiorinda

    How interesting that they are descendants of Brits. I don’t think I ever really thought about that-especially about Obama. That is probably not something that will get talked about much(or maybe it will be talked about too much), especially here in the south where there are plenty of people who are descended from families that were held in slavery. I think I’ll have to ask my husband if he thinks that would have any bearing on how people vote(He teaches U.S. History and Government).

    I am not even remotely politically minded. But you made me think.

  • Chris Barker

    Anonymous– that seems a little below the belt, especially considering you left off your name completely.

    Peter, I appreciate your film commentary, and have enjoyed the comments you’ve left at Josh Hurst’s and Jeff Overstreet’s blogs about the current Presidential race. They are nothing if not thought provoking, even if I am an Obama supporter. That exchange in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner strikes me as the kind of wide eyed optimism that we hear about so much from the sixties. Maybe we could stand to hear a bit more of it, even if it sounds a little unlikely.

    Chris

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/08741378159534413277 Magnus

    Anonymous: I disagree with Pete frequently on many issues. While very astute and incisive as a film critic, I do sometimes feel that he his political vision is a often too narrow – unnecessarily narrow and perhaps suffers from being too naïve.
    That said, I am not sure his comments here were out of line and I think he raised an interesting point and parallel with the film.

  • Ken

    Interesting thoughts Peter…

    Not that this matters at all, but I thought I’d mention it. If Powell’s parents were of Jamaican descent, then they were likely descended from slaves as well. I’m not sure of the exact dates involved, but it’s possible Powell’s great-grandparents were slaves. While Jamaica was a British colony, it was also a colony that kept slaves. In fact, as far as I know, all black people in Jamaica would have been brought to the country as slaves.

    Sorry for the history lesson. The blog’s great. I live in South America, so it’s great to be able to keep up on what’s happening in the world of cinema.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07395937367596387523 Peter T Chattaway

    Ken: You’re right, there were definitely slaves in the non-American British colonies, too. However, there are some significant historical differences there, I think: Britain abolished slavery several decades earlier than the United States did; Britain abolished slavery without fighting a civil war over the issue; and blacks are by far the majority in Jamaica (91%) and the Bahamas (85%), whereas they are a minority in the United States (13%). So the populations of places like Jamaica and the Bahamas have had more time to deal with the issue, they presumably inflicted less damage on themselves while dealing with it, and so on. This, I think, would produce a rather different set of cultural experiences and expectations than what we often see in the United States.

    Fiorinda: As the son of a Brit myself (my dad was born in England, raised in Zambia, and marched in anti-apartheid protests in South Africa back in the ’60s), I would be surprised if anyone voted for or against a candidate simply because their parents came from the Commonwealth. But from what I hear, the problem Obama had to overcome early on was the perception among some black voters that he wasn’t really “African-American”; Mark Steyn, who is white, quotes a black activist to that effect here, while Cinque Henderson, who is black, writes here that “black people love Obama” because of his “dark-skinned” wife and perhaps not so much because of the candidate himself. Obviously, though, based on the recent primaries, it would seem Obama has overcome that hurdle.

    Anonymous: Got any specifics? Any particular areas where I can improve? Several of my friends and colleagues talk about politics very openly on their blogs, including their pop-culture-oriented blogs, and I often disagree with them, but as Chris notes, I have tended to keep my thoughts on such matters to the comments sections on those blogs, rather than cloud my own blog with these sorts of distractions. That said, there’s no reason I couldn’t join my colleagues in harping away on politics here, too, but I just get tired of seeing it all the time on other blogs so I tend to refrain from doing it here on my own blog. I made an exception in this particular case because of the film connection, but I don’t plan to make this a regular thing.

    Magnus and Chris: Thanks for the comments. As for the bit about being “naïve” … well, that’s one of my recurring criticisms of Obama and his campaign. There’s plenty of naivete to go around, alas. I’m all for “wide eyed optimism”, though. I just think we need to be shrewd as serpents, even as we are innocent as doves. And I’m not sure that Obama is either of those things, really.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17492591447246532970 jasdye

    i know that you’re not following the election-politics here in the States as much as some of us are (which is of course understandable, not living in the US and having other hobbies), but i thought it intriguing that you would make this comment:

    I cannot help but wonder if all the editors who came up with “Obama makes history” headlines last night would have done the same for Clinton if a couple hundred delegates had gone her way instead of the other way.

    everything about this election cycle is historic, and we certainly hear it from the news media (which is so run-down from the drawn-out Democratic primaries that they have to remind us time and again why it’s important). so, yes, the first woman to make it this far to the presidency. the first one ever expected to be president (by most, btw). and McCain – if elected – will also be listed as historical, being the oldest president at the beginning of his first term (still can’t believe he’d be older than Reagan. but then again, i was just a kid back then.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07395937367596387523 Peter T Chattaway

    Well, I wouldn’t say I’m entirely out of the loop; I was vaguely aware of the threat that Obama’s church and mentor posed to his campaign weeks if not months before most of the nation seemed to be, and given how incredibly close these primaries turned out to be, I think we will all wonder for some time how this election would have turned out if Jeremiah Wright and all that stuff had entered the public consciousness sometime earlier than mid-March, i.e. sometime before Obama racked up all those early successes that gave him the momentum to stay just that little bit ahead of Hillary.

    But you’re right, no matter which of the three primary candidates would have been elected, there would have been something historical about it. And as far as historical trivia goes, it is also worth noting that this will be the first election since 1960 in which a sitting Senator is elected President; all the winners since then have been current or former Governors, Presidents and Vice-Presidents. This is also the first election since 1952 in which a current President or Vice-President is not running for office. And, depending on who Obama picks to be his running mate, this may be the first election since 1976 in which there is neither a Clinton nor a Bush on either party’s ticket. (Speaking of which, did you know that, in 1988, George H.W. Bush became the first — and so far only — sitting Vice-President to be elected President since Martin Van Buren in 1836? All the other VPs that became President in the interim did so upon the death or resignation of the Presidents under whom they served — or, in Nixon’s case, he won the election eight years after his term as VP had ended.)

    I don’t necessarily mean to imply, by the way, that it would be a “trivial” thing if America elected a woman or someone who wasn’t entirely white — especially since America seems to be lagging behind much of the world in this regard. But, if you’re the kind of person who elects people for their character, judgment, policies, words, deeds, etc., etc., then things like gender and skin colour will probably seem like secondary considerations at best.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07395937367596387523 Peter T Chattaway

    Ack, I got so caught up in trivia I almost lost sight of a key point here. When I wrote, “I cannot help but wonder…,” I was commenting not so much on the question of whether Hillary’s nomination would have been historical in and of itself, but on the question of whether the media would have made as big a deal of it. It’s a question of media bias, basically.

    For what it’s worth, a friend of mine argues it would have been more historical if Hillary had been nominated, since women are a majority, not a minority, and thus arguably should have been included at the highest levels of the political process long, long before now. Their exclusion all these years is less understandable, statistically, and thus there may be a greater need to right a wrong in this regard, is his point, I think.

    Then again, non-whites — and Obama is half-white, so the category may or may not include him — have had the vote for much longer than women, so perhaps, on that level, it makes sense that a non-white candidate would get elected before a woman would. (The 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, was passed 143 years ago, and the 15th Amendment, which guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race, was passed 138 years ago. The 19th Amendment, which gave women the vote, was passed only 88 years ago — so there are probably still women alive today who can remember when women didn’t have the vote. For whatever that’s worth.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17492591447246532970 jasdye

    firstly,

    non-whites — and Obama is half-white, so the category may or may not include him …

    In the US, absolutely does include him. Drop of blood policy is still very much alive, Mr. Obama (whose activism certainly aligned him with African-Americans if his familial upbringing strictly didn’t) is still largely considered a non-white by most people. that would make him black, irregardless of his father’s point of origin.

    secondly,

    the 24 news stations have said a lot of stupid, sexist things about Mrs. Clinton. however, the tenacity of her followers (many of whom blame Obama for her failure to win and thus are holding a ridiculous – but somewhat understandable – grudge against him) assures me that the mainstream media would definitely have made a big deal about it (although they made a significantly slight deal about our current Speaker of the House, Ms. Pelosi).

    thirdly,

    yeah, it’s long been past time for women to get their fair share. wages are still significantly off and, for cryin’ outloud, Pakistan had a woman PM. Pakistan!

    fourthly,

    although there was/is a tremendous amount of identity politics this election cycle, most people (including his massive following among blacks) voted for Barrack based on his character and policies. or at least that’s what i saw. of course, a lot of people voted against him b/c of the color of his skin or b/c of other racial politics.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07395937367596387523 Peter T Chattaway

    Drop of blood policy is still very much alive . . .

    That may be true, as a socio-political convention. But it’s one of those conventions that needs bucking. Especially in the case of someone like Obama who is half-white, was raised by his white family, and spent no more than two years of his entire life in the company of his black father. (See also Halle Berry, who was raised by her white mother after her black father left, or Tiger Woods, who as I understand it refuses to be pigeonholed as “black” because there is more than one drop in his bloodstream.)

    yeah, it’s long been past time for women to get their fair share. wages are still significantly off and, for cryin’ outloud, Pakistan had a woman PM. Pakistan!

    Heh, good point. I was thinking mainly of Great Britain, Israel and Germany while writing my earlier comment. (I don’t count Canada, because our one-and-only female PM, Kim Campbell, was essentially a sacrificial offering made by a deeply unpopular party that was doomed to be defeated at the polls only a few months after she won the leadership.)

    although there was/is a tremendous amount of identity politics this election cycle, most people (including his massive following among blacks) voted for Barrack based on his character and policies. or at least that’s what i saw.

    Well, I would quibble that they voted for him based on what they thought of his character, or on the myth of his character, rather than the actual character that he displayed, but anyhoo. (A number of people have pointed out that Obama has gotten as far as he has largely on the idea that he is some sort of “post-racial” candidate, yet everything about Obama’s life and work — including the autobiography subtitled “A Story of Race and Inheritance” — suggests otherwise.)

    of course, a lot of people voted against him b/c of the color of his skin or b/c of other racial politics.

    True. I was discussing this on one of my colleagues’ blogs a while ago, with regard to a poll that indicated a really, really high number of people who voted against Obama did so because of his “race”. I have a hard time believing that that many people would have objected to him because of his skin colour — and would have admitted this to a pollster! I am inclined to think that what they meant by “race” was the particular brand of racial politics that Obama has chosen to align himself with, as exemplified by Jeremiah Wright and all the rest. But who knows, I could be wrong about that.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17492591447246532970 jasdye

    yeah, racial politics in the US is a big, fat mess. and i’d love for Obama to truly be post-racial (which isn’t really true, certainly), but he’s definitely post-60′s/70′s black power (which, unfortunately, Wright was still living in). but since the power structures in the US aren’t post-race (not by a looong stretch – as indicated by those who wouldn’t vote for obama because he’s black) though, we have to deal with race on a national scale with kid gloves on – which is pretty much the hand that obama’s been given and that i think he’s done a very good job at handling.

    it’s kind of like the double-standard that HRC got handed. prove that you’re tough enough to be the Commander in Chief, but still nurturing enough to not be a threatening woman. straddling those lines is really not fair to anyone and the sooner those lines are withdrawn, the better. for the time being, it’s super-political. so, my kudos to Obama for being so good at playing the game, connecting with his roots (even though he’s had to publicly disavow them), and looking toward a future post-racial vision.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07395937367596387523 Peter T Chattaway

    i’d love for Obama to truly be post-racial (which isn’t really true, certainly), but he’s definitely post-60′s/70′s black power (which, unfortunately, Wright was still living in).

    I’d like to believe that, but the fact remains that Obama chose to spend almost two decades under the spiritual mentorship of a guy like Wright, and in a church community that was fostered by guys like Wright and Fleger and that fostered them in return, and Obama’s first instinct was to make excuses for his chosen mentor and his chosen community when these aspects of them were finally exposed to the rest of the world.

    we have to deal with race on a national scale with kid gloves on – which is pretty much the hand that obama’s been given and that i think he’s done a very good job at handling.

    Well, he’s certainly done a very good job of playing on white liberal guilt and hiding his various inadequacies behind the implication that anything that isn’t a kids-glove treatment of him must be racist somehow. That’s “handling” it of a sort, I suppose. And by “he”, of course, I am referring not just to the man but to his campaign as a whole; as near as I can tell, they were playing the race card well before the Clintons were (unless you seriously agree with the Obama campaign staffers who thought that Bill’s “fairy tale” comment — made in reference to Obama’s claims about his voting record — was somehow a racist dig).

    And for what it’s worth, yes, I am aware that Obama has frequently passed the buck and said that various controversial things were the fault of his staffers and not of him, but still. There’s been a consistent good cop, bad cop routine, with his campaign staff scolding people all the time and then Obama presenting himself as the one who will rise above it all. I can just imagine what an actual administration run by this guy might be like. (And no, I don’t look forward to the prospect of four to eight years of Obama and his people implying that any and every criticism of his policies must be a covert form of “racism”.)

    so, my kudos to Obama for being so good at playing the game . . .

    Heh. That can be read in a few ways. :)

    . . . connecting with his roots (even though he’s had to publicly disavow them) . . .

    But … but … they aren’t his roots! Obama’s roots are in white Kansas and black Kenya. And he grew up in Hawaii, to boot, which as I understand it is as far removed from slavery and Jim Crow as you can get. He has no roots in the African-American community at all — and he has spent his whole life trying to make roots there. Unfortunately, because he was so concerned that he wasn’t “black enough”, he chose to side with extremists like Wright, to build up his bona fides. And that is why I remain skeptical that he is really “post-” all that stuff.


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