And why, of all things, “A Raisin in the Sun”? Well, there’s good reason. In fact, you can consider this a two-pronged review. This coming weekend I am going to see the new Broadway production of the 2011 Pulitzer prize-winning play “Clybourne Park”. It officially opened just a few hours ago(after a brief 2010 run off-Broadway)—and the early reviews have been tremendous. Playwright Bruce Norris apparently wrote “Clybourne Park” as a “response” to Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play, “A Raisin in the Sun”. So, what better way to prepare for my weekend Broadway trip than a fresh watch of the 1961 film…something I probably haven’t seen since grade school.
When it first opened on Broadway in 1959, “A Raisin in the Sun” was the first play to open on the Great White Way(fittingly ironic)written by a black woman. It was also the first directed by an African-American(Lloyd Richards). The show was a rousing success and was given a film version just two years later. Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil and Ruby Dee made the transition to film from the stage version along with most other cast members(including an impossibly young Louis Gossett, Jr.!) Canadian Daniel Petrie was pegged to direct, and he mostly does a fine job. There are the usual trappings of expanding a stage work to the big screen, however. Poitier’s performance is increasingly theatrical as the film progresses. Ditto Claudia McNeil. Ruby Dee makes a much cleaner transition, but the mostly one-room action of the story perfectly illustrates its stage origins. The plot involves a ten thousand dollar insurance payment that will soon be received by widow Lena Younger from a policy belonging to her late husband. Everyone wants something different from this coveted fortune, as they await its arrival in their cramped Chicago-area apartment where they share a bathroom with other building tenants. 35-year-old Walter(Poitier)wants to open a business with two friends. His younger sister Beneatha(Diana Sands)dreams of attending school to become a doctor. Matriarch Lena Younger(McNeil)wants to buy a house. And Walter’s wife Ruth(Ms. Dee)believes that the whole affair should be entirely up to Lena. Will anyone or everyone get a little taste of their dream? Or no one at all? When one of Poitier’s intended business partners turns out to be something other than what was originally thought, a major conflict is set into place. And when Lena Younger purchases a home in an all-white suburb, the act brings an unwelcome visitor to their midst with a stern reminder of how things are “supposed” to be.
I have to judge this film in its time to do it justice. It is a very compelling watch, and was absolutely groundbreaking in 1961. Be that as it may, it’s worth noting that it is stuck in a pattern that would be repeated countless times in film over the ensuing decades—even as recently as 2011’s “The Help”. And that is the unshakable nobility of its characters. That may have been unavoidable 50 years ago, but it also illustrates how little distance we’ve come today. It’s much more egregious that “The Help” takes this path, of course. Poitier’s character does exhibit flaws, however—and that helps. He flies into rages and he drinks when he gets upset. It’s so much more interesting to view damaged people than perfect people. And I love Ruby Dee in this with her world-weary luminousness—something that you may not think it possible to pull off. The film is a fantastic showcase for some great African-American actors during a period where rich roles were few and far between(and even that hasn’t changed as much as it should’ve by now). When this movie was released there had been only ONE black performer who had ever garnered an Academy Award—Hattie McDaniel for 1939’s “Gone with the Wind”. After “A Raisin in the Sun”, the next two winners were two of the stars of it—for two different films over the next TWENTY ONE YEARS. Sidney Poitier was named Best Actor for 1963’s “Lillies of the Field”, and Louis Gossett Jr. took home Best Supporting Actor for 1982’s “An Officer and a Gentleman”. Mind-blowing to realize that there were only three black winners over the first 60 years of Oscar. And pretty damn disgusting too.
The play “Clybourne Park” is supposed to represent the period immediately before and then after “A Raisin in the Sun”—a very intriguing set-up. Clybourne Park, btw, is the all-white suburb where Mrs. Younger eventually buys a home. I am chomping at the bit to see this modern take on an old story. Expect that analysis soon. And I really appreciate 1961’s “A Raisin in the Sun”, a landmark film and an important time capsule. Hopefully, it won’t take Hollywood another five decades to render this type of movie a quaint reminder of days gone by.