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.