Monday, March 14, 2005

Those redos that you do (not) so well...

I saw a commercial last night for a film called Guess Who. (By the way, what’s with the lack of question marks in movie titles that would seem to call for them? I’m specifically thinking of this and Isn’t She Great.) It’s a comedy featuring Bernie Mac as a father thrown for a loop when his daughter brings home a white boyfriend, played by Ashton Kutcher.

While I have my doubts that this will be a very good movie, I did think it was a prime example of what would be a better direction for remakes. Although most modern audiences won’t get the allusion, Guess Who is obviously an allusion to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), a typically plodding Stanley Kramer ‘social issues’ film of the sort that destroyed the director’s career. In the original, Spenser Tracy and Katherine Hepburn are white liberal parents thrown for a loop when their daughter brings home a black fiancée (the inevitable Sidney Poitier--and talk about inequality! The white family is confronted with Poitier as a son-in-law, the black family with Ashton Kutcher.)

The film is almost impossible to watch today, despite the fact that Kramer does attempt to deal with issues like the parent’s hypocrisy. In the end, however, it is brought down, like most of Kramer’s late work, by its longing to be an Important Statement. Times were changing so fast that the film was probably beginning to calcify even while it was in theaters, although news stories were duly reported about Southern outrage over the picture. Today the film is a relic, and of interest only as in indication of how far we really have come.

Sidney Poitier did make a great film about racism, one that does remain both fascinating and relevant today, but it wasn’t a talky meditation on the Human Condition, it was a cop thriller. This was In the Heat of the Night, which, conveniently for this essay, as also released in 1967. That the two films were made back to back is almost fascinating, and I’m actually now thinking of watching them back to back as a Compare & Contrast double bill.

The difference between the two films is easily grasped. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner endlessly lectures us on race and racism—literally, in the form of Spenser Tracy’s ‘climatic’ dissertation on the subject—while In the Heat of the Night actually portrays how racial divisions affected lives, of both whites and blacks. Films are, after all, moving pictures; hence the general rule, show, don’t tell. In the Heat of the Night shows. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner tells. (And tells. And tells…)

In Heat, a prominent white man is murdered in a small Southern town. When a well dressed black man is found waiting at the train station, with a wallet full of cash, he is arrested and the case is presumed to be solved. However, the black man is actually a Philadelphia homicide detective visiting a relative. However, when the town’s white sheriff (Rod Steiger) realizes that he’s over his head with the murder, he maneuvers Poitier into staying around and helping to solve the crime.

Having a black man walk around questioning white folks, however, arouses a great deal of anger amongst the townsfolk, and Steiger’s own position becomes increasingly precarious. At the same time, as he gets to know Poitier all his casual racial assumptions are challanged. An essentially honest man, he finds himself having to examine for the first everything he’s ever been taught and known.

The film’s climax isn’t when the murder is solved; it occurs as Steiger watches Poitier interrogate one of the town’s old-school, hopelessly racist gentry. Eventually the man loses his temper and slaps the uppity Poitier across the face. Poitier slaps him back, and both white men are quite literally stunned. Stammering, the enraged town father turns to Steiger and asks him what he’s doing to do about Poitier’s transgression. (Pretty clearly, he actually expects Steiger to draw his service revolver and shoot him). Bewildered, Steiger confesses, “I don’t know.” He means it, too. His social compass has been smashed, and he obviously has no idea how to react.

When I was a kid, I thought it unfair that Steiger had won a Best Actor Oscar for the film instead of Poitier, the film’s star, and who also gives a powerful performance. As a more sophisticated viewer, however, you understand that Steiger’s role is by far the more complex one. I don’t say this often, but the Academy made the right decision in this case.

There’s a lot going on in this film. Whereas one can barely sit through Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? even one time, you are rewarded by multiple viewings of In the Heat of the Night. The film doesn’t just linger on racial divisions here, but also economic and social ones, and it brilliantly observes each and every character. Perhaps the gutsiest decision was to make even Poitier’s character flawed. His longing to hang the murder on one of the town’s racist bigwigs blinds him to what might actually be the case’s real solution.

Getting back to Guess Who, what is interesting is that, whatever the picture’s eventual flaws—and again, it’s an Ashton Kutcher movie—it will benefit from the fact that it isn’t trying to be ‘Relevant.’ Indeed, even the central switch of having the perturbed father be black and the questionable boyfriend white isn’t a remotely interesting turnaround. Racial tensions have declined enough that Mac’s cantankerous dad will probably be viewed less as a bigot than just a comically unhip fuddy-duddy. Mac will do doubt learn an Important Lesson by the time it’s all over, but it will be one that we veiwers already knew. The original film assumed that its audience had to be taught that racism is stupid; the new version will be predicated on its audience already knowing this.

The reason I like the idea of the film as a remake, even if I wouldn’t necessarily like the movie itself were I to see it, is that rather than taking a superbly realized film that’s already been made and just pointlessly ‘updating’ it, this one borrows the original’s premise and takes a completely different tact with it. It does help, of course, that one could hardly make a film that’s actually worse than Kramer’s. (Although, I have to admit, many still consider it a classic.) Still, what I like is that they took a drama and are making it a comedy.

There’s a realization that such more intrinsic redoes are the way to go, and thus for a while the term ‘reimagining’ has been tossed around. However, the idea hasn’t caught on to the degree that it probably should. Perhaps it’s a good sign that a film still lauded by many to be a venerable Hollywood classic is inspiring a slapdash comic makeover.

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