A member of my dissertation committee advised me early in the project to watch movies from my period constantly, the better to develop a “density of authority.” I’ve had mixed success at following this recommendation so far. But it did recently lead me to watch—for the first time, embarrassingly—Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the 1967 Stanley Kramer film on interracial marriage starring Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy as a wealthy, liberal, white couple whose daughter returns from a trip to Hawaii with a new fiancé, played by Sidney Poitier.
About halfway into the film (a minute into the clip below), Tracy’s character grills Poitier’s about the latter’s prospective children. Poitier reports that his fiancé “feels that every single one of our children will be president of the United States, and they’ll all have colorful administrations.” Poitier, on the other hand, “would settle for Secretary of State.”
It’s an uncanny moment, certainly, when the president is the son of a well-educated black man and a younger white woman who met in Hawaii. Some quick searching reveals that Ezra Klein and Frank Rich both noted it in the lead-up to the 2008 election. (More often, commentators—most famously, BET founder Robert Johnson—drew a lazier comparison between Poitier’s character and Obama himself.)
The resonance is coincidental, of course. But I wonder if it’s not accidental, on some level, that Hawaii was the launching pad for both the fictional Preston-Drayton and real Obama-Dunham marriages—that only in what Cokie Roberts assured us was a “foreign, exotic place” could such an interracial coupling occur, despite the favorable legal landscape across most of the Northeast, upper Midwest, and Far West even before Loving v. Virginia. Deserved mockery of Roberts aside, Hawaii’s real and imagined status as a racial and political borderland had an obvious role in Obama’s narrative as a source of both possibility (the Dunhams went there “in search of opportunity,” his 2004 convention speech declared) and distrust (ask any birther). Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner suggests a deeper history to such conceptions. The resonance of this Hawaiian plot point with the 2008 election, in turn, underlines the intriguing centrality in that campaign of the legacies of nineteenth-century U.S. imperial ambitions: Obama’s Hawaii, McCain’s Panama Canal Zone, Palin’s Alaska.
Parenthetically, it’s also interesting to note that quite conservative gender and sexual politics of the scene above: Poitier assures Tracy that there will be children, because “it wouldn’t be a marriage” otherwise.