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50 Years of Racism and Rom-Coms

23/08/2017 15:54 BST | Updated 23/08/2017 15:54 BST

In December 1967, moviegoers were introduced to John Prentice. He was intelligent, handsome, funny and provided medical care for impoverished people in poor communities around the world. He was also, crucially, an African American.

I am referring, of course, to Stanley Kramer's Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, starring Sidney Poitier as John Prentice. After seeing a plane touch down on a Los Angeles runway, the film begins with a young interracial couple stepping out and entering a cab. Poitier and the film's female lead played by Katherine Houghton are on their way to inform Houghton's parents of their upcoming marriage.

Unlike most Rom-Coms, the narrative drama of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner doesn't come from a rollercoaster of will-they-won't-they uncertainty, but from the disapproval of Poitier and Houghton's parents. We are never given any cause to doubt the love which Poitier and Houghton's characters feel for each other. Their respective fathers, however, are not so sure.

Houghton's character is blissfully unaware of why there should be any problem at all with their relationship. With a sort of progressive naivety, she struggles to grasp the fact that anyone could disapprove of a marriage based solely on a disparity of race. As Poitier's character says, 'It's not just that our colour difference doesn't matter to her. It's that she doesn't seem to think there is any difference.'

Now, 50 years later, The Big Sick is carrying the torch which Kramer lit in the late 60s. It is a semi-autobiographical version of co-writers Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon's real-life attempts to consolidate their love for one another with their conflicting heritages.

The comparisons are obvious. Both films depict men of colour living in America, pursuing the love of a white American woman in spite of racial barriers imposed on them both by their families and by the wider cultures in which they live. Disapproving parents present the greatest and most tangible opposition to their relationships, but their also lies a subtler, more fundamental cultural opposition to their interracial union. And perhaps most interestingly from a cinematic perspective, they both use comedy as a means of discussing these racial issues.

But what is it about the Romantic-Comedy genre which lends itself to the discussion of racial issues? It would be easy to think that racial discrimination as subject matter is reserved for dramas and biopics like Twelve Years a Slave, Mississippi Burning and In the Heat of the Night, another film from 1967 with Sidney Poitier at the helm. Films like the two being discussed here show that this is not necessarily the case, and that there is a certain value in dealing with racism in a comedic light.

In the late 1960s when Guess Who's Coming to Dinner was released, the Civil Rights Movement was at its peak, with racial tensions between African Americans and White Americans running at an all-time high. It was released just four months before the assignation of Martin Luther King. In 2017, our modern Western society is perhaps more closely associated with Islamophobia, particularly rife in recent months following a string of terrorist attacks in Western countries. With this in mind, Nanjiani's depiction of himself as an American-Pakistani Muslim seems highly relevant.

What both films set out to achieve by depicting minorities in a comedic light is that they too are human. If the adage that we fear what we don't know is true, then these films can be seen as successful attempts to familiarise white-Western viewers with characters from cultures different from their own.

The Big Sick opens with home-footage of Nanjiani in Pakistan, delivering a short monologue about how the main difference between living in Pakistan and America is that Pakistan is only now getting episodes of Knight Rider. This is a perfect example of how comedy can be used as a method of humanising and familiarising a culture which may seem alien to some people in the West whose prejudices are based in a lack of understanding.

Though the style of humour may have changed, 50 years earlier, this is exactly what Kramer did with Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. By depicting an African American in a positive, somewhat comedic light, the audience is encouraged to regard Poitier's character as a human just like any other.

So while you may not expect it, romantic-comedies are actually a perfect tool for discussing racial issues and fighting against discrimination. By making us laugh, a well-made rom-com can make us reconsider just how nonsensical some of our prejudices are.

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