A Raisin in the Sun

Director: Daniel Petrie
Screenplay: Lorraine Hansberry (based on her play)
Stars: Sidney Poitier (Walter Lee Younger), Claudia McNeil (Lena Younger), Ruby Dee (Ruth Younger), Diana Sands (Beneatha Younger), Ivan Dixon (Asagai), John Fiedler (Mark Lindner), Louis Gossett Jr. (George Murchison), Steven Perry (Travis Younger), Joel Fluellen (Bobo), Louis Terrel (Herman), Roy Glenn (Willie Harris)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1961
Country: U.S.
A Raisin in the Sun Criterion Collection Blu-ray
A Raisin in the Sun

The title of Lorraine Hansberry’s groundbreaking 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, which she adapted into the 1961 film directed by Daniel Petrie, comes from Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem,” which asks the pointed question, “What happens to a dream deferred?” “Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?” Hughes asks, “Or fester like a sore—/and then run?” Hughes’s poem is short, direct, and packs a punch, and you can see why Hansberry would be drawn to its wording, not just for her play’s title, but for its dramatic essence. A Raisin in the Sun is, at its core, about the frustrations that come with having dreams that are either out of reach or must be constantly put off to attend to more mundane realities, and part of the play’s brilliance is the way it conveys the vast range of emotional fallout from deferred dreams—the sense of withering, and of festering, and, as Hughes ends the poem, of exploding.

The story centers on the Youngers, a working-class African-American family living in a crowded, two-bedroom apartment on the South Side of Chicago. Each member of the family is struggling in his or her own way against the intertwined economic and racial oppression that defines their existence. The central couple is Walter Lee (Sidney Poitier), who works as a chauffeur, and his wife Ruth (Ruby Dee), who works as domestic help. They have a young son named Travis (Steven Perry) for whom Walter Lee yearns to give a better life, one that he knows he cannot achieve as a chauffeur. He has hatched an investment plan with several friends to open a liquor store, but he needs the money from a soon-to-be-delivered life insurance check from his father, who recently passed away. That check goes to his mother, Lena (Claudia McNeil), with whom they live along with his younger sister Beneatha (Diana Sands), who yearns to go to medical school and therefore needs the insurance money for tuition. Lena is against the idea of Walter Lee opening a liquor store, while he is determined that it will offer them a ticket out of constant economic struggle.

The story is one of conflicting desires among a group of family members who all want different variations of the same thing. Walter Lee longs for the upward mobility that he sees coming so easily to white men, which feeds his frustration and sense of emasculation. He lashes out at everyone around him and descends into self-destructive drinking, yet Poitier keeps him sympathetic and relatable, even when he is at his worst. Ruth is a study in patience and endurance, while Lena represents a strong matriarch who has endured racial strife and economic desperation and is therefore less likely to be lulled into chasing false dreams. Director Daniel Petrie, who was helming his second feature film after a decade of directing television series, including episodes of the prestigious anthology dramas The United States Steel Hour, Goodyear Playhouse, and The DuPont Show of the Month, stays largely out of the way and allows the fine cast, all of whom had appeared on the Broadway stage together, to manage the drama. He allows much of the action to unfold in long takes that emphasize the cramped space of the Younger apartment, but in such a way that avoids a sense of “canned theater.”

The film’s most pointed and painful reality is revealed when Lena decides to buy the family a house in a white suburban neighborhood, only to be confronted by the cordial, but insidious head of the neighborhood association (John Fiedler) who arrives to tell them ever-so-politely that they are not wanted (this was something that Hansberry had experienced directly, as her family integrated a white neighborhood in the late 1930s under threat of violence and her father was involved in a case challenging racial housing restrictions that went all the way to the Supreme Court). Much of the film’s second half hinges on the stinging reality of integration and how African-American families were so often forced to defer their own dreams simply because white people feared that would mean losing theirs, a sensibility that, unfortunately, appears to be on the rise today.

And that is why A Raisin in the Sun retains much of its dramatic and social power so many decades later: It hits on an intertwined set of realities involving family conflict and deeply embedded social racism that still affects us today. The Youngers are very much a portrait of the black family at the dawn of the Civil Rights era, but their struggles and successes are still pertinent. Some dreams, unfortunately, are still being deferred.

A Raisin in the Sun Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish Linear PCM 1.0 moanural
SubtitlesEnglish
Supplements
  • Interview from 1961 with playwright/screenwriter Lorraine Hansberry
  • Video 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. ”
  • Video interview with film scholar Mia Mask, coeditor of Poitier Revisited
  • Interview from 2002 with director Daniel Petrie”
  • Trailer”
  • Essay by scholar Sarita Cannon and author James Baldwin’s 1969 tribute to Hansberry, “Sweet Lorraine”
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateSeptember 25, 2018

    COMMENTS
    It has been a long time since A Raisin in the Sun was given any attention on home video, as the last DVD release came out back in 2000. Thus, Criterion’s new Blu-ray edition is a welcome (and long overdue) update, giving us a beautiful new high-definition transfer from the original 35mm camera negative. The pleasing black-and-white cinematography looks true to form, with good grain structure and excellent detail and contrast. Some digital clean-up has clearly been deployed, but the overall image is strikingly filmlike. The original monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35mm magnetic master and sounds very good. The film is largely dialogue-driven with little in the way of nondiegetic music or even a lot of environmental noise, and the track here reproduces the mix faithfully. In terms of supplements, there is quite a bit, starting with a 24-minute illustrated audio interview from 1961 with playwright/screenwriter Lorraine Hansberry. Also from the archives is a 27-minute episode of the TV series Theater Talk from 2002 about a then-new Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun that features actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis and producer Philip Rose; 7 minutes of excerpts from a 2002 interview with director Daniel Petrie; and a 40-minute excerpt from the 1978 feature-length documentary Black Theatre: The Making of a Movement with a new 10-minute introduction by director Woodie King Jr. Criterion has also produced several new supplements, including a 25-minute interview with Imani Perry, author of Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry, about Hansberry’s life and emergence as a major voice in journalism, activism, and theater, and a 25-minute interview with film scholar Mia Mask, coeditor of Poitier Revisited, about Poitier’s work on the film. The insert booklet includes an essay by scholar Sarita Cannon and author James Baldwin’s 1969 tribute to Hansberry, “Sweet Lorraine.”

    Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection

    Overall Rating: (3.5)



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