This week, I watched a movie I had not seen in 54 years. I first saw Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1967 when my mother took me to see it in a small theatre in Stettler, Alberta. Even at the young age of seven, I was able to understand the movie at some level. It is one of my early memories because I cried tears of relief at the end of it. I think I understood the conflict of the story and perhaps even understood a bit about love. I was sad that there were people in the world who were considered different and less significant because of the colour of their skin. I sensed the triumph of changed attitudes as the story unfolded and I was likely influenced by the emotions of others in the theatre as I let my teardrops fall.
Growing up in rural Alberta I don’t recall having much understanding of racial tension, not because there was no racism, but rather because we had few interactions with anyone of a different skin colour. I also don’t remember any indigenous people in our small rural community. Of course, the land we worked had once been the hunting, trapping, and community lands of the indigenous people before us. But by the time I lived there, they were far away in other places, and sadly we did not see them or concern ourselves with them. We were a vanilla white community with the major differences being the distinction between poor farmers and even poorer farmers. Often, the slightly more well-off farmers would look with disdain upon the poorest farmers in the community and believe that the poorest farmers were somehow to blame for the situation in which they found themselves. The well-off farmers would discount the privilege and opportunities into which they had been born. So, we had a parallel to class distinctions that divided along lines other than skin colour. It was not until I moved to Calgary in the late 1970s that I had any friends who were black. Only then did I begin to understand the difficulties these friends faced.
What prompted me to watch the movie this week was of course, the death of Sidney Poitier on January 6, 2022, at 94 years of age. His stunning performance and the performances of the whole cast and crew earned the movie several Academy nominations and awards. The film itself is recognised as an historical treasure that helped to change race relations in that era.
Watching it 54 years later, one might critique it too harshly by the standards of today, but the reality is that the movie holds up well. I found myself once again emotional as I considered how little has changed in 54 years. Some of the same attitudes are still evident in our human culture today. With as wide an audience as this film had, one might rightly ask how anyone could deny equal rights to people regardless of skin colour after seeing this film; and yet, political, sociological, and economic factors are never solved by a single movie. The arts are a powerful tool in changing minds, but minds must of course be willing to change.
As for the class distinctions of my own childhood, I suppose they were a lesson to me about seeing both prejudice and privilege and they ultimately contributed to my own sense of understanding of the world. Though protected from some of the sociological upheaval of the 60s and 70s, I learned to appreciate my privilege and express gratitude for it. It made me more humble and less prejudiced toward those who did not look like me or have the same privileges I had. It is a lesson I am continuing to learn through all the days of my life and so I am grateful for writers, moviemakers, and actors who help me to learn these valuable lessons. May we celebrate the amazing work of Sidney Poitier as we mourn his passing.