Our Own Discomfort
A man who don’t play sports is not a real man, as far as I’m concerned.
—Percy (Bernie Mac), Guess Who
I’m constantly, throughout the movie, digging out of a hole.
—Ashton Kutcher, “Love is the Melody: The Making of Guess Who”
“I always try to get a little bit of perspective,” says director Kevin Rodney Sullivan, observing the “first aerial shot” of Guess Who. As the camera looks over Manhattan, then cuts inside a Wall Street office where up-and-comer Simon Green (Ashton Kutcher) is being fired. The timing is especially bad for this earnest young man (though the reason, as you come to find out much later, only underlines his admirable morality). He’s about to go meet the family of his beautiful girlfriend, Theresa (Zoë Saldaña).
He adores her and wants desperately to please her (she is, he says, “everything I’m not” that is, an artist, into sports, and black), all visible in their first scene together, when he can’t bring himself to tell her about his new circumstances. And so they head to Cranford, New Jersey for her parents’ 25th anniversary, Simon hoping against hope that he’ll pull out a miracle (or a new job, via his NYC connections) before it’s over. The fact that her parents don’t yet know Simon is “pigment-challenged” only piles on the surprises for the weekend.
In this comedic refraction of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?, by way of Meet the Parents and basic black-white buddydom, Simon’s partner is Theresa’s dad Percy (Bernie Mac, whom Sullivan describes as having “something fresh to bring, every day”). Kutcher and Mac are, of course, funny guys. They’re also charmingly out of sync (see especially: Simon teaching Percy to tango; Percy teaching Simon pillow football), and dialed down from their usual energetic spasticities. It helps as well that Percy and Simon are surrounded here by smart, self-confident women, including Theresa’s sister Keisha (Kellee Stewart), who asks what it’s like to “be with a white guy,” as the concept might seem so foreign, still, and their mom, Marilyn (Judith Scott), stoic, sensible, and patient, suggesting that determined that Theresa “train” her man before the relationship goes further.
This relationship soon turns secondary to Simon and Percy’s—partly because Simon begins with a lie (about being employed), then complicates it by saying he has experience working in a NASCAR pit crew, assuming it’s “the whitest sport on the planet,” so Percy won’t know it, when in fact, Percy’s a major fan. Most of the comedic complications have to do with deceptions, insecurities, and misunderstandings: on Simon and Theresa’s arrival, Percy mistakes their black cab driver (Mike Epps) for the new boyfriend, and when Percy walks in on a little romantic play in Theresa’s bedroom, he determines to send the boy to a hotel (“Playtime is over!”), and when that doesn’t work out, shares the basement bed with Simon, allowing for a series of snoring, arm-draping slumber shots. This says Sullivan, is based on Bernie Mac’s true-life story of when his daughter brought the man that she married home for the first time: “Bernie brought him to the basement and climbed into bed with him.”
Frequently during Sullivan’s detailed commentary track (he talks about camera set-ups, lighting and music choices, drivers on the set, supporting players, Bernie Mac’s pronunciation of “bullshit,” and all this in addition to a not-so-interesting making-of featurette, seven best-deleted scenes, and a gag reel), he explains his thinking about the film’s social and political angles. Guess Who raises discomforting questions concerning interracial relationships, as differences, assumptions, and resentments still circulate (one set of web postings about the film has already noted the traditionally worrisome image of the white man with a black woman, evoking a long system of power abuses). As the film points out, the interracial couple still stirs up old tensions and assumptions, in this case partly because Simon, as good-hearted as he is, remains ignorant of the problem he poses. “I know things have changed,” she sighs, acknowledging the strides made, but still, people say awful things to them.
Even, sometimes, naïve-because-he-can-be Simon. When she learns of his deception, he flabbergasts his way through one rationale after another, none convincing. Percy sees the opportunity to gang up on Simon with Theresa (though she’s mad at him too) and Simon can’t do a right thing. “Whatever I say,” he spews, “You people are going to say I’m a racist.” Eyebrows arch and backs go up. “I mean,” he stumbles, “You people in the yard.” While this exchange is about fine parsing of language, it’s also about lingering doubts and distrusts, even in loving relationships. The differences between experiences are deep, and you have to commit to bridging them, even if you can’t share every one. When the couple does inevitably break up to make up, she asks him straight up, “How are we going to get past this, with this skin?”
For the most part, the movie “gets past this”—Simon’s ignorance and Percy’s resistance—with humor, and not all of it is comfortable. The easy-seeming stuff is physical (the guys compete in go-carts, they dance, they fall down). The more provocative humor is verbal and emotional.
During one set piece, a dinner at Percy and Marilyn’s home, including his father, Howard (Hal Williams), Simon lets slip that he doesn’t quite understand the offensiveness of his grandmother’s affection for Theresa’s “cute nappy little head.” Percy goads him along the road to humiliation and penitence by encouraging him to tell “black jokes” he’s heard white men tell. These ride along (“Why don’t black people like country music? Because every time they say ‘ho-down,’ they think somebody shot their sister”) until Simon takes a step too far, and then he’s sorry and Percy is disapproving (“What do white people do,” he asks Marilyn, “Take a class?”). Sullivan describes the scene’s “two levels.” First, he says, it’s “our most comedic scene.” And second, “It’s provocative about the whole history of racial humor and disrespect… Our own discomfort kind of comes into play. It’s a scene that should provoke a lot of conversation when it’s over.”
Though Theresa sees what her father has done (indeed, what she’s done by not telling Percy ahead of time about Simon), she also schools Simon: “Telling black jokes is never a good idea.” There are some lines white folks, so used to privilege, must be careful of, and that’s just where U.S. culture is right now. At the same time, and as Kutcher notes so hopefully in his appearance on Access Hollywood, Guess Who and other mainstream entertainments might push viewers along to another place.