A Raisin in the Sun

Studio: Criterion

Sep 27, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

“What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”

Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, A Raisin in the Sun, holds an important place in the history of African American theatre, being the first by a black woman to run on Broadway. It’s still taught in courses on literature and playwriting to this day, not only for its social and cultural significance but for its naturalistic approach to family dynamics and multi-fronted attack on systemic racism, the latter of which (sadly) resonates to this day.

The 1961 film version of the play is perhaps best remembered for featuring one of the all-time great performances from its leading actor, Sidney Poitier, though its entire cast put on a tour de force. With palpable chemistry no doubt engineered across their more than 500 stage performances of the material, the Raisin in the Sun cast – Poitier with Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, and Diana Sands – portray the Younger family with such true-to-life interplay that it’s easy to forget you’re watching actors and believe they’re a real family.

At the opening of their story, the Younger family eager await the arrival of $10,000 life insurance check being sent their way after the death of their patriarch. Crammed into a tiny apartment in the ghetto of Chicago’s south side, they have clashing ideas of how the money can best be put towards improving their situation. Walter Lee (Poitier) has grand plans to go into business with two of his more dubious pals, opening up a liquor store which will no doubt be his first stepping stone toward a new life as a prominent businessman. His wife, Ruth (Dee), would rather get away from their claustrophobic dwelling and find a larger home for their 10-year-old son and incoming baby. Walter’s little sister Beneatha (Sands) shares a room with their mother, has dreams of becoming a doctor but is struggling to get through medical school. The family matriarch, Lena (McNeil), is caught in the middle of it all, and forced into navigating how the money will be used without turning her family against one another. Her job is not made easier by the family’s other problems, from Walter Lee’s mounting alcoholism to Ruth’s indecisiveness over whether or not she wants to keep her baby.

For all of the play’s spirit that the film successfully captures, it does overly brighten the former’s bleak outlook. When the Younger family finally put a down payment on a modest suburban home, they’re welcomed by the representative of the housing committee – from their new, thoroughly white neighborhood – who makes it clear to them they’re not wanted. Where the play left their future feeling far more ominous, the film ends on an almost triumphant note. Hansberry’s first two passes at the screenplay were rejected by the studio out of fear it would be too controversial and possibly objectionable to white audiences. Notably, the film’s scenes that take place in their new neighborhood are its most cheerful.

Still, there’s so much the film does well outside its stellar performers. Director Daniel Petrie, a specialist in stage-to-screen adaptations, wisely chooses to shoot the actors with a conservative hand, not drawing undue attention to the fact that it’s a film. Cinematographer Charles Lawton, Jr.’s black-and-white photography is reserved, and packed with powerful close-ups. (He’s not to be confused with Charles Laughton, the famed cinematographer whose sole directorial effort was the ever-haunting Night of the Hunter.) The 1961 film version of A Raisin in the Sun is a classic in its own right, if a slightly imperfect adaptation of the original playing.

Criterion’s Blu-ray restoration of the movie obviously looks fantastic. As Hansberry passed died young of cancer, only 34 years of old and a few years’ removed from the play’s success, the extra features here are predominantly vintage material, but strong. (These includes an interview with the playwright recorded in 1961.) The two newest pieces are interviews with contemporary scholars, which provide information not only about its context within its era, but its legacy as it stands today. All-in-all, a worthy package for a more than worthwhile piece of cinema.  



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