I’ve gone out with friends of mine that are black and seen them treated different ways because of the color of their skin. I said, you know what, if I’m not part of the solution I’m gonna be part of the problem.
— Ashton Kutcher, Access Hollywood (24 March 2005)
Amiable and earnest, Wall Street up-and-comer Simon Green (Ashton Kutcher) wants so very badly to please his beautiful girlfriend, Theresa (Zoë Saldaña). She is, in his words, “everything I’m not,” that is, an artist, into sports, and oh yes, black. He loves her so much that when she asks him to go with her to Cranford, New Jersey for the weekend of her parents’ 25th anniversary, Simon agrees. This even as he frets about all the firsts involved: he’s meeting her family for the first time, Theresa wants to announce their own engagement, and oh yes, they’ll learn that he’s white. Or, as he puts it, “pigmentally challenged.”
This is the premise of Guess Who, Kevin Rodney Sullivan’s buddy-comedic refraction of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? On first hearing, the idea seems silly. Why even invite comparison between a much respected, “social problem” classic and a patently commercial venture? And geez, pairing Kutcher with Bernie Mac — as Theresa’s father Percy — only underlines the crassness of the whole deal. Talented, funny, and cynical, they’re troublemakers and inciters, appealing to young hip consumers, not the sort who go to movies to learn lessons or open up to new ways of looking at the world.
And yet, Guess Who works. In part this is because Kutcher and Mac are genuinely funny, aptly out of sync (see especially: Simon teaching Percy to tango), and dialed down from their usual energetic spasticity (each in his own way). What also works is the array of characters who surround them, 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 and sensible and patient, and yet also determined that Theresa “train” her man before the relationship goes any further.
But Simon and Percy are not just reinforced or repressed by “their” women, but are instead engaged in complicated and specific relationships (demonstrated in carefully observed scenes that split off the characters into pairs: Keisha and Theresa, Theresa and her dad, Marilyn and Percy, all ensuring that Simon might be an occasion for reevaluation, but will not disrupt their long established dynamics). Of course, many of the comedic complications have to do with deceptions, insecurities, and misunderstandings. When Simon and Percy meet, Simon has neglected to tell Theresa that he’s just quit his job (he has his reasons, disclosed to redeem him later) and Percy mistakes the black cab driver (Mike Epps) for the new boyfriend. And when Percy walks in on a little romantic play in Theresa’s bedroom, well, that tears it — dad determines to send the kid to a hotel room, far from the girl he’s been living with in Manhattan.
Conveniently — as things tend to happen in romantic comedies and buddy movies — the hotel is full up and so Simon ends up ion the basement (though the drive over affords a spate of tedious radio-joking, as the lineup on every station appears to focus on interracial lusting, from “Brother Louie” [“She was black as the night…”] to the Velvet Underground’s “Take a walk on the wild side”). Percy’s decision to sleep with Simon (to ensure that Theresa remains un-violated throughout the weekend) makes for some visual gagging, as the camera hovers over their contorted, wrapped-round-each-other poses all night long.
But the jokes are only part of what’s going on here. Guess Who raises yet-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.” On one level, this is about the fine and difficult parsing of language, on another, it’s 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 break up to make up (it’s a romantic comedy, the structure is intractable), 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 (as well as the women’s own variations on stubbornness) — with humor, and not all of it is comfortable. During one set piece, a dinner at Percy and Marilyn’s home, including his father, Howard (Hal Williams). When 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 when they hear ‘ho-down,’ the first thing they think is, ‘Somebody shot my 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?”).
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. And things will continue to change.