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'Guess Who' takes on race — with a grin

After 38 years, a reconsidered take on Poitier's classic
/ Source: Reuters

To younger movie fans, “Guess Who,” a comedy about interracial marriage, might have been called “Guess Who Cares,” but stars Ashton Kutcher and Bernie Mac say their updated take on an Oscar-winning movie about race in America has a serious side too.

Its source film, 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” starred Sidney Poitier as a black doctor who confronts a white couple played by Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy with the news he is engaged to marry their daughter.

The Stanley Kramer-directed movie, which took on an issue considered explosive at the time, was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, with Hepburn winning for best actress and William Rose for his screenplay.

By contrast, “Guess Who,” which debuts Friday, plays the tension between a white son-in-law-to-be (Kutcher) and his less-than-accepting black father-in-law-in-waiting (Mac) as light comedy for a mainstream audience.

“I love just going to the movie theater and laughing,” said Kutcher, “But there’s not many comedies that actually put something in to tackle a subject with some social relevance.”

Different times, different filmsVery little about “Guess Who,” in which Kutcher portrays jobless Wall Street trader Simon Green and Mac his soon-to-be in-law Percy Jones, resembles “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” But at their core, both reflect the mood of their times.

In the original, Poitier played a well-to-do doctor who goes to the home of his white fiancee to tell her liberal parents they are getting married, producing a tense encounter.

A decade of nonviolent civil rights campaigns led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had made political gains, but that movement was being questioned by younger and more militant leaders.

In his recent biography of Poitier, Aram Goudsouzian writes the movie became a “sounding board” for racial conviction. Liberals sought it out, conservatives shunned it and black Americans split on whether Poitier should be lauded or booed.

Almost four decades later, director Kevin Rodney Sullivan’s comic spin is more about the ties that bind — love being at the top of the list — than the racial divide in the United States.

Still, Kutcher said far too much was made in the media about his friendship with rap mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, which opened his eyes to race issues that still exist.

“Look, if the racial barrier was at a mile when that movie (the 1967 version) started, it’s at a city block now,” said Kutcher. “But we still have to remove that city block.”

Adding a twistIn 1970, only about 65,000 black/white interracial married couples were U.S. citizens, according to U.S. census data.

By 1998, that number had grown to 330,000. In 2003, a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found 75 percent of respondents “mostly agreed” it was OK for blacks and whites to date, up from 48 percent in 1987.

“Issues have changed. The idea of interracial relationships and mixed marriages is pretty common,” said Jonathan Kuntz, visiting professor at UCLA’s film and television school.

In its own way, “Guess Who” sheds some light on race stereotypes by flipping them 180 degrees. Mac’s Jones is a fan of NASCAR auto racing. He can’t dance, so Kutcher’s Green puts some rhythm in his step.

Mac said there was no way to top Spencer Tracy’s climactic dinner speech that bridged the racial divide,  So, their idea was to force Kutcher’s character to tell racially derogatory jokes.

“That was a hell of a speech. ... We could not follow that. So, we decided to put in a little twist of comedy.” Mac said, laughing at it himself.