REVIEW: A Raisin in the Sun [1961]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: Approved | Runtime: 128 minutes
    Release Date: March 29th, 1961 (USA)
    Studio: Columbia Pictures
    Director(s): Daniel Petrie
    Writer(s): Lorraine Hansberry / Lorraine Hansberry (play)

Damn all the eggs in the world.

Debuting in 1959, Lorraine Hansberry‘s A Raisin in the Sun became the first play written by a Black woman to get produced on Broadway. With four Tony nominations, it’s no wonder Hollywood jumped onboard to bring it from the stage to the screen two years later. Hansberry adapted herself with Daniel Petrie hired to take directing duties from Lloyd Richards as almost the entire cast of principal actors stayed put. Besides a sequence of Walter Lee Younger (Sidney Poitier) frustratingly jumping to attention whenever his boss asks (and some at a bar), the piece remains a single-room drama. That sense of claustrophobia proves necessary considering the Younger family’s need to live in such close quarters is one of the driving forces for why everything transpires as it does.

The action opens upon Ruth Younger (Ruby Dee) leaving Walter in bed to wake their boy (Steven Perry‘s Travis) from his nightly spot on the couch. She’s the family’s alarm clock because if he doesn’t use the apartment floor’s communal bathroom now, his father won’t be able to do the same before another neighbor gets there first. And this is how they’ve lived for a decade—longer for Walter considering he grew up there too. The difference is that he and Ruth share his parents’ old room while his sister Beneatha (Diana Sands) and their mother Lena (Claudia McNeil) share the second. Walter Sr. is tragically no longer with them, his absence the reason they’re all abuzz this specific morning. Today’s the day his life insurance check arrives.

Ten thousand dollars. Travis says his grandmother is rich. Walter Jr. and Beneatha wonder about their cuts. Their problem is the reality that they might not get anything. The check is in Lena’s name and therefore it’s her money to do with as she wants. Maybe she’ll give it all to the church. Maybe she’ll rip it to shreds. Ruth knows her mother-in-law will do right by the family. She knows they’ll be taken care of even if how that ultimately plays out isn’t to their immediate liking. Beneatha wants it now to keep up her borderline expensive style of living while going to medical school and Walter is salivating to invest it into a bar his buddies want to open. Lena wants to go to the bank.

With that, the generational clash and weaponized gender warfare begin. Walter wants to know why no one will listen to his dream as his sister lives hers out freely. The reason is simple: he has a wife and child to worry about while she has only herself. Does that make it fair? Maybe not. But neither is his gradual descent into blaming Ruth and their marriage for his ruin. Or his quick temper when it comes to watching Beneatha have the luxury of leisure while he works for a man with whom he wishes to trade places. All Walter can see is dollar signs. He’s been hypnotized by the allure of wealth as a means towards happiness, forgetting what he already has without it. Resentment has taken control.

Beneatha has strayed culturally from the path drawn by her parents. She has embraced the reality that everything she has and everything she will become is a direct result of the work she’s putting in. To hear her mother praise God is thus a slight on all that she’s accomplished. Does it excuse her impetuous desire to strip her mother of her faith despite all she’s done to provide for the family? No. Where Walter replaced God with money, however, Beneatha replaced Him with heritage and cause. She dates a rich American (Louis Gossett Jr.‘s George) while flirting with a Nigerian immigrant (Ivan Dixon‘s Asagai), using both to augment her identity politics and find her salvation in a similarly black-and-white, poor-versus-rich way that ultimately mirrors Lena’s good-versus-evil doctrines.

Hansberry is mixing it all together for a series of explosive confrontations bringing past/present, black/white, wealthy/impoverished, and cultured/philistine to a head. That check becomes akin to a curse as a result, driving each to morph into his/her baser form. Greed and entitlement rise to dishonor the memory of everything their father did to put it in their hands with an early demise. Impulse and shame cause them to grow malicious and spoiled, their hopes and aspirations hinging upon this morbid thing—this test of will from the grave. It may just as well tear them apart as it might supply them salvation, but the former always seems to the likelier option considering how quick they are to destroy what they’ve already built for its unfulfilled promises.

Poitier and Dee deliver powerhouse performances with Sands standing just behind them, but it’s McNeil who steals the show. I say this both because of how she commands the screen when showing her matriarchal mettle (she’s in charge until one of her children can prove they can be trusted to take the mantle) and how Hansberry has written her as an unyielding optimist who’s willing to let her son and daughter lose everything in order to confirm she and her late husband raised them right. A Raisin in the Sun depicts challenge after challenge with nothing but heartbreak at the finish line—so much heartbreak that the few victories can’t help but feel like they’re teetering on the edge of a cliff readying to deliver even more.

There’s no better example than the appearance of the sole white character, Mark Lindner (John Fiedler). A wolf in sheep’s clothing ready to bring the era’s racism and government-sanctioned segregation to the forefront, the implicit truth for why the Youngers reside in their current predicament becomes undeniably explicit. Lindner’s awkwardness and discomfort gets us (and Beneatha) fearing the worst before he suddenly starts to say all the right things. That cloud of darkness shifts to one of ear-to-ear smiles as talk of understanding and dialogue has Walter and the others preparing for a brand-new day. And then the hammer inevitably falls. Pretense takes over as platitudes reverse through the lens of hate we initially anticipated. That Hansberry ends it with comedy via Lena’s return is profound.

So much of this film is. Those tonal shifts from laughter to tears happen on a dime as the fate brought to this family courtesy of systemic racism yearns to turn the page if not flip the table. The claws of white supremacy are in too deep, though. The drive to excel beyond their oppressors by taking shortcuts risks their ability to be happy at all. Walter and Beneatha crave the easy path because they see white men and women using it every day. They see that money as a means towards more rather than an answer for now. And it laughs at their naivete, leveraging their morals in ways that force them to question morality’s very purpose. But running isn’t living. Standing and fighting demands patience instead.

Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.

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