Lorraine Hansberry’s play has been given a masterful film adaptation, with the emotional truth of her words left intact. We’re told of some superficial compromises, but they do not diminish the play’s powerful clash between old and new ideas in a Southside Chicago family struggling to escape poverty. This may be Sidney Poitier’s best screen performance, but the honors are shared with a superlative cast.
A Raisin in the Sun
The Criterion Collection 945
1961 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 128 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date September 25, 2018 / 39.95
Starring: Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Ivan Dixon, John Fiedler, Louis Gossett Jr., Stephen Perry, Joel Fluellen, Louis Terrel, Roy Glenn.
Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr.
Film Editors: William A. Lyon, Paul Weatherwax
Original Music: Laurence Rosenthal
Written by Lorraine Hansberry, from her play
Produced by David Susskind, Philip Rose
Directed by Daniel Petrie
In more than one web review of this show I found words dismissing it as ‘just a filmed play.’ Yes, we pay attention to films for their cinematic qualities, but more good reasons exist for finding value in movies, and one is to record an important stage performance. One of my favorite discs is the presentation of the original Broadway cast of Into the Woods. It’s not much more than an optimally-observed straight performance of the stage show, complete with original scenery and even a plastic cow on wheels. But the fact that it’s been recorded for posterity is wonderful. It’s ten times the experience of the dismal movie version done decades later; I wish it had been filmed on 70mm instead of videotape.
Lorraine Hansberry’s play isn’t just an award winner or an item recommended for high school classes — it’s a key item of American history. It marks the first time a black woman playwright had a work produced on Broadway. It was a huge success that cemented the careers of several actors and helped launch a couple more. We’re told that when it was proposed as a film subject, some thought its story was not universal, that general audiences (translate: non-black audiences) wouldn’t care. The issues in the show are indeed universal, and would be immediately understood in India or Japan. Film companies were simply wary of shows about minorities, as if it were codified somewhere that marginalization made good business sense.
Thanks to the excellent extras in Criterion’s disc presentation, Hansberry’s moving A Raisin in the Sun makes an even deeper and wider impression. This sixty year-old movie version, with action mostly restricted to one set of rooms, hasn’t dated in the slightest. Its story of a struggling family is stronger than ever.
The Younger family of the South side of Chicago has some critical decisions need to be made. The ambitious Walter Lee (Sidney Poitier) is unhappy working as a chauffeur; both his elderly mother Lena (Claudia McNeil) and wife Ruth (Ruby Dee) must work, and yet the family can still barely afford their rent. The place is crowded and they must share a hallway bathroom with neighbors. The tensions are not just over money, but over a conflict of opinions as to what constitutes an ethical way for the family to ‘improve.’ Also living in the house is Walter Lee’s little son Travis (Stephen Perry) and his sister Beneatha (Diana Sands), a college girl who wants to go to medical school. Beneatha also has progressive ideas about social activism, and she clashes with her mother when she says she doesn’t believe in God. She has two suitors. George Murchison (Louis Gossett Jr.) comes from money; Walter Lee is clearly envious of him. Asagai (Ivan Dixon) is a Nigerian doctor that Beneatha met in school. He courts her with romantic notions of African customs and talks about going home someday soon.
The big impetus for change in the household is that Mama Lena’s husband has just died, and a $10,000 insurance check is expected in the mail. Walter Lee, convinced that the only way to get ahead is to get into business, desperately wants the money to go in on a liquor store with his two friends, Bobo and Willie (Joel Fluellen & Roy Glenn). Mama Lena wants some of the money to get Beneatha started in medical school, when Walter Lee thinks his sister should just become a nurse ‘like everybody else.’ Ruth insists that Walter Lee should pipe down, that it’s Lena’s money to do with as she wishes. The issue puts a new strain on their marriage. As it turns out, Lena wants to buy a house, something that she does on her own. The good news is that she has money left over to help Beneatha and Walter Lee. The bad news is that the house she buys is in a white neighborhood. No sooner has she signed the papers than Mr. Lindner (John Fiedler), a little man from the new neighborhood association shows up, offering to buy the house back at a profit. The Youngers get a chance for a new beginning, only to find that they’re not wanted.
A Raisin in the Sun sounds like one of those stories recommended by a book club, the kind that are safe for kids (safe subject matter, nothing salacious) and in general, ‘uplifting.’ All those things are true, but even with the edges slightly softened, playwright and screenwriter Lorraine Hansberry captures a vibrant image of de-classed black American home life to which most blacks can relate. The characters are far too individualized to be stereotypes. Walter Lee is something of a hothead, wrapped up in notions of patriarchal authority and humiliated that he’s not the success he wants to be. The author’s mouthpiece for progressive ideas is the bright and inquisitive Beneatha, who aims to succeed by improving herself. Of her two boyfriends Asagai would seem to have the inner track — her eyes light up when he gives her an African dress. But Beneatha is too smart to simply be seduced, to let herself become Asagai’s ‘American adventure’ before he returns home.
As hard and proud as a battleship, Mama Lena is a stronghold of venerated older values — that Hansberry endorses. Lena places family first, demanding that Beneatha respect God, and making statements proclaiming Walter Lee’s authority over the others. Lena just wants the family to have a place of its own, where she can grow things. Their apartment gets no sun, yet she tends a sickly plant as a symbol of hope for life and the future. Ruth, the one non-Younger in the house, supports Mama Lena even as her mother-in-law meddles in Travis’s schoolwork time. The play also has room for Lena to hold moral court when Ruth’s discovers that she’s pregnant again, and the issue of a possible abortion is raised.
The biggest crisis is over Lena’s insurance money, but A Raisin in the Sun does not become a social issue film about economic oppression. This is not some noir-ish urban trap story, where Walter Lee would do something unethical and fall into disgrace. Walter Lee’s kind of crime is giving his son some pocket change that the family can’t afford to spend, just because it makes him feel good. That act mirrors a key scene in the older noir Try and Get Me! where a desperately unemployed white worker loses faith in the system and turns to crime. The difference is that the white laborer doesn’t have the support of a strong family unit.
Hansberry’s story touches on disadvantages and oppression, but the backbone of the show is a positive statement on family values. Even as they worry, the Youngers are having a reasonably good time. The little boy Travis loves everybody; it’s not a half-bad environment to grow up in. Beneatha and Walter Lee argue but neither wants to break things up. Yes, at times Ruth does behave in a manner submissive to her husband, if one measures things by current PC standards. Walter Lee gets away with macho pronouncements, asserting that he will be the one to decide who his sister marries. But even with their problems, noir misery has no place in this family. Beneatha has options — her dream of the medical profession, and the possibility of a radically different, adventurous life in Africa. Lena will have her house, fulfilling her good husband’s dream. Walter Lee may always struggle, but he will get beyond his anxieties about opportunities passing him by. He has room to grow as well.
For the film adaptation Ms. Hansberry was able to open up the settings just enough to permit a couple of scenes outside the house. Walter Lee and Lena go to the neighborhood bar, and the family takes a trip to the new house in the sunny (and white) neighborhood. The family looks ecstatic, roaming through the more spacious rooms and admiring the full kitchen with its appliances. They sit in the backyard to give Lena some gifts. It’s a big step up, a square bourgeois reward — and nothing that Spike Lee would criticize.
The expected race discrimination issue is confronted when the neighborhood committee man wants to buy back Lena’s dream house. The Youngers’ smiles suddenly disappear, replaced by the muted anguish of people benumbed by a familiar misery. We’re told that Hansberry wanted to add some darker material for the film version, which was not permitted, more signifiers of discrimination and poor treatment here and there, the kinds of humiliations likely to antagonize a proud man like Walter Lee. I can’t say that I think the show is harmed by this avoidance of a stronger race conflict — the simple fact that the Youngers aren’t free to live anyplace they can afford is enough. Before A Raisin in the Sun almost no mainstream films portrayed black American family life, not even in simplified Andy Hardy terms. Blacks were always happy servants, and their own families off somewhere, mostly unseen.
It’s frankly good to see Sidney Poitier play a man that isn’t always reasonable and doesn’t always exercise good judgment. His roles were so consistently ‘uplifting’ that critics began to set him aside as a black superman, a vision of blacks tailored to the demands of prejudiced whites. Social change is miserably slow, but considering the pernicious racism that’s dominated ordinary American life, Poitier’s squeaky-clean characters might have been a necessary phase.
Most of the cast came straight from the Broadway play. Director Daniel Petrie is white — in 1961, you almost have to say ‘of course he was.’ The white producer David Susskind was an aggressively liberal showman who knew a quality civil rights- oriented masterpiece on sight. Columbia gave the show quality production values. Charles Lawton Jr. had filmed John Ford’s Columbia pictures, and Budd Boetticher’s CinemaScope westerns. Laurence Rosenthal’s emotional music is a plus; he’d move on to Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker.
Sidney Poitier had already been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, and was the first black actor to win that honor. He’s the noted star in a ensemble show packed with standouts. Ruby Dee’s film career has been just as long and just as distinguished — she has a plum role in the 1951 thriller The Tall Target, and was still going strong as the head of a different kind of family in American Gangster (2007). Claudia McNeil’s work was mostly on television; she was actually only ten years older than her ‘son,’ Sidney Poitier. Ivan Dixon’s TV work led him into directing, and he made his mark with the truly radical picture The Spook Who Sat By the Door. I first became aware of Louis Gossett Jr. in The Landlord (1970), Skin Game (1971) and Travels with My Aunt (1972) and had no idea he’d already been acting for ten years.
For me, the show’s magic personality is Diana Sands. Walter Lee is the center of the play but Sands’ Beneatha is its brightest cast member. I would assume that she speaks directly for the playwright. Her Beneatha is the life of the show, and the one to represent the material truly progressive for 1959: the notion of black pride in one’s overseas roots, and the idea that a black woman has a right to pursue an ambitious career. The youthful Beneatha has the spirit that comes when one’s options are still open, and Ms. Sands’ enthusiasm leavens some of the darker issues around her. Beneatha seems the most hurt when Mr. Lindner oh-so-diplomatically tells the Youngers that they aren’t wanted in the white neighborhood. Sands just seems so alive. Had the actress not died so young, I think she might have been as big as Poitier.
Lorraine Hansberry has enough faith in her play’s ‘African heritage pride’ message to even make fun of it through Walter Lee, who sees nothing practical in African customs. Spurred on by Beneatha’s records and dancing, Walter Lee can get as excited by the music as anyone. A Raisin in the Sun leaves a lot of decisions unmade and the Youngers’ big move unresolved, but we don’t feel that anything is missing. A number of 1950s films had already sensationalized the problems faced by minorities in the prejudiced American success story, but almost always as sidebar victims. The narratives always seem to belong to white characters. Instead of wailing about the situation A Raisin in the Sun presents a family that has everything required to keep working to succeed.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of A Raisin in the Sun comes from Sony’s new, restored 4K digital transfer, that properly mattes the film down to 1:85. I will start by confessing that I passed up the show’s infrequent flat TV broadcasts because the human figures were so small — they seemed lost in the middle of the squarish image. Un-matted, the Younger household is mostly tall walls above and carpets below, with a stripe of little people in the middle. This is what I mean by a proper aspect ratio focusing the drama, leaving out irrelevant context.
The picture is in fine shape all around, and on a decent-sized monitor makes a strong impact. In a good adaptation ‘the play is still the thing;’ more cinematic embellishments aren’t necessary. The show runs over two hours, which is either an endorsement of Columbia’s judgment, or perhaps of David Susskind’s powers of persuasion — we’d really expect a studio to insist on a cut closer to 90 minutes. I imagine that Sony accepted the project in the same spirit that they took on Stanley Kramer’s earlier stage adaptation of The Member of the Wedding (1952). Both pictures have clean lines, and do not apologize for the theatrical format.
The Blu-ray extras arranged by disc producer Elizabeth Pauker were a needed education for this reviewer. First up is a lengthy illustrated audio interview with Lorraine Hansberry, recorded not long after the release of the movie. She looks like a college girl in her photos, but her refined voice adds an aspect of distinction — as a black academic in the ’50s and ’60s, adopting a formal way of speaking might have been a career necessity, although hers was likely natural. Hansberry was a woman of strong opinions, but neither is she pushy. She’s not afflicted by false modesty, and graciously receives praise.
Other expert interview pieces examine Ms. Hansberry, Sidney Poitier, and aspects of black activism in the theater. Rounded up for interviews from 2002 are producer Philip Rose, actress Ruby Dee, director Daniel Petrie and actor Ossie Davis, who took over Poitier’s role in the original stage presentation. We learn that Lorraine Hansberry came from solid activist stock, and that her father, a successful businessman, invested much of his life in pushing an anti- housing discrimination case to the Supreme Court. The successful decision bears his name. Hansberry spent the early 1950s in New York helping edit a paper published by the blacklisted Paul Robeson. All these accomplishments came early, for she died at a very young age as well.
Capping off the extras are an insert booklet with an essay by Sarita Cannon, and a famous Hansberry tribute written by James Baldwin. We learn that the source of the play’s title is a poem by Langston Hughes, as our appreciation grows for the play, the playwright, and the film.
One more note — viewers might remember Diana Sands and Louis Gossett Jr. playing an eccentric man and wife in Hal Ashby’s sublime comedy-drama The Landlord from 1970. I often used the can’t-get-better clip of the two of them talking in cadence, when Gossett levels a bow and arrow at their landlord, Beau Bridges: “These arrows have been dipped in Fanny’s barbecue sauce, so as to make death slow and more agonizing to its unfortunate victims.”
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A Raisin in the Sun
Supplements: Interview from 1961 with playwright/screenwriter Lorraine Hansberry; New interview with Imani Perry, author of Looking for Lorraine, Episode of Theater Talk from 2002 featuring producer Philip Rose and actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis; Excerpt from Black Theatre: The Making of a Movement (1978), with a new introduction by director Woodie King Jr.; New interview with film scholar Mia Mask, coeditor of Poitier Revisited; Interview from 2002 with director Daniel Petrie; trailer. Booklet with an essay by scholar Sarita Cannon, and author James Baldwin’s 1969 tribute to Hansberry, Sweet Lorraine.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 28, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson