[Film Review] A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

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Title: A Raisin in the Sun
Year: 1961
Country: USA
Language: English
Genre: Drama
Director: Daniel Petrie
Screenwriter: Lorraine Hansberry
based on her play
Music: Laurence Rosenthal
Cinematography: Charles Lawton Jr.
Cast:
Sidney Poitier
Claudia McNeil
Ruby Dee
Diana Sands
Ivan Dixon
Steven Perry
Louis Gossett Jr.
John Fiedler
Joel Fluellen
Roy Glenn
Rating: 8.4/10

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Time to reappraise this overlooked but seminal Americana, a drawing-room drama based on the groundbreaking play by black female playwright Lorraine Hansberry, A RAISIN IN THE SUN, parlays its Broadway success onto the celluloid with its illustrious original theatrical cast, a feat renders mostly impossible today due to the overwrought concern about Broadway star’s cinematic bankability.

A strapped Afro-American family of five dwells in a pokey apartment in Chicago, but their fortune is going to change with the pending insurance of $10,000 due to the death of the late patriarch (the gaping irony is right out of the box, for a hardworking proletariat family to better their lives in America, the most effective way is through capitalistic insurance, and a tragic death), and the beneficiary is the hefty matriarch Lena Younger (McNeil), who plans to use the money to buy a real house for the family, but her elder son Walter Lee (Poitier) covets the money to invest on his chancy liquor business, because this is the essential American Dream he has been rubbed off on all his life.

Taking place principally inside their apartment and through director Daniel Petrie’s operative blocking and DP Charles Lawton Jr.’s nimble-footed cinematography, the film patiently and entrancingly hammers out the different world views between generations, all seethed with social, gender and political connotations, Lena’s traditional, God-fearing, down-to-earth praxis clashes with Walter Lee’s wounded male pride of incapability to throw off their immiseration, and the profane, Africa-obsessed sass from her younger daughter Beneatha (Sands), a college student aiming to be a doctor, and definitely needs the dole for her tuition. And there is also Ruth (Dee), Walter Lee’s hardworking wife, who is fed up with his airy-fairy making-a-killing plan, only hopes that he can keep his chauffeur job to lead a steady life, and is distraught by an unexpected pregnancy, they already have a school-age son Travis (Perry), thus abortion is not entirely off the table.

Each character Lena, Walter Lee, Beneatha and Ruth, is given ample meat to chew from their distinctive viewpoint and each, makes a cogent case out of it, sparks fly when those thespians are operating in full throttle. Poitier is at his most compelling when the crunch comes he must take the baton to be the householder, and he has to do the right thing. Walter Lee is far from being perfect (one might gripe that the plot could have allowed him some sense to at least save a tranche of the money for Beneatha’s tuition before squandering it in the hands of his suspect friends), but his flaws are not just his own doing, reckoning and imagining the injustice and prejudice black folks have to endure on a daily base (the racism is so sharply conveyed by the only white character in the game, played by Fiedler with earnest intention of showing his benighted benevolence and generosity), it eventually pains us to judge him, and inflames a rousing catharsis when he finally gets that turnabout.

A woebegone Claudia McNeil is terrific in retaining her incorruptible integrity and devotion to her children as the backbone of the household, a doting grandma, a heartbroken mother and a pertinacious doer. A petite Ruby Dee, often overshadowed by her towering co-stars, shows up her unstinting resilience as a mother/wife beaten up by poverty and it is the most poignant moment when her dream of moving into a bigger house seems to be callously scuttled by her mulish husband, there is no room for “I told you so!” scoff, but an oceanic pang of agony that Dee immaculately hits the bull’s eye.

Lastly, a lippy Diana Sands takes no less onerous task in unpicking Beneatha’s progressive stance, waffling between George (Gossett, Jr. in his film debut), a young black man born with a silver spoon in his mouth and Joseph Asagai (Dixon), her Nigerian classmate who epitomizes the roots, the identity she is striving for, Sands turns heads in her unsparing purveying of vim and vigor, even some comic, when pairing with a particularly voluble Dixon, who arrives as the miraculous mood-enhancer when the family hits absolutely rock bottom.

Overall, A RAISIN IN THE SUN is a superlative study surveying the intrinsic moral conundrum ailing the Afro-American ethnography within a superfine microcosm, and its visibility should definitely be passed on to posterity.

referential entries: William Friedkin’s THE BOYS IN THE BAND (1970, 7.8/10); Mike Nichols’ WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966, 8.2/10).

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