The Broadway production of “A Raisin in the Sun” by Lorraine Hansberry opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York on March 11, 1959, ran for 530 performances and was nominated for the 1960 Tony Award (New York City) for Best Play. Both Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil received Tony Award nominations for their performances, “Best Actor/Actress in a Play.”
Given the success of the stage production, A Raisin in the Sun was made into a feature film, released in 1961, directed by Daniel Petrie. All the actors, Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Ivan Dixon, Louis Gossett Jr. (his film debut) and John Fiedler, recreated their stage roles in the movie version. The ground-breaking play became a ground-breaking film.
Based on Lorraine Hansberry’s own experiences of growing up in an African American family that moved into a white neighborhood and experienced the harsh realities of segregation and prejudice, A Raisin in the Sun tackles those realities with stark realism. Realities, one must note, that had never been tackled on stage or screen in a manner never before seen – the story of one African-American family, its members shown from their perspective. The title of Ms. Hansberry’s work is based on a poem by Langston Hughes, “Harlem: A Dream Deferred.”
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
A Raisin in the Sun is also noteworthy because it is one of the few films produced at the time that features an almost entirely black cast. And what a cast it is. Although I am usually drawn to subtle performances and this film is theatrical, filmed and acted like a stage play for all intents and purposes, with large movement and reactions, all acting in this is stellar and memorable. This is a film I find I can’t look away the very first scene. It’s riveting.
Raisin rarely comes to mind when I think of Sidney Poitier and his great career. The inherent class and sophistication Poitier brings to all his other film roles is not present here, which only points to the fact he is such a great actor because Walter Lee Younger is anything but sophisticated. Due to circumstances and his stage in life, this is a bitter man and Poitier’s portrayal reeks of disappointment and a deeply felt sense of loss of will. It’s powerful and moving. Still, Mr. Poitier’s performance here is not my favorite – I’ll admit I may well be so affected by this character and personally touched by his flaws I don’t think I’m able to overcome them enough to like him, even in the end, so it clouds my judgment. Be that as it may, however, the fact remains I am most moved in A Raisin in the Sun by Ruby Dee whose portrayal of Ruth, the wife and daughter-in-law is poignant. I think she gets to me most because in a sense she is in that place with these people by choice of marriage – hope lost is what she means to me. She has little to no strength left to fight. Dee’s is also the least “theatrical” of performances from my perspective, more introspective, which is what I am drawn to.
The Younger family lives in a small, two-bedroom apartment, a stifling life clear from the very first scene. Lena Younger (McNeil), matriarch of the family shares a room with her adult daughter, Beneatha (Diana Sands). Walter Lee (Poitier), called “brother” by the family, and his wife, Ruth use the second bedroom in the small apartment and their son, Travis has the living room couch and his bedroom. The family has to share the bathroom with the other neighbors in the building.
As the story opens, we learn Lena is to receive a substantial insurance check, $10,000, left to her by her deceased husband. This payment could mean either financial salvation or personal ruin for the poor, black family. I won’t go into the details of this journey, and it is a journey, it is better witnessed first-hand. But I will say that the beauty of this story is that although it shows the trials and tribulations of a black family, the themes are also universal, the story layered It’s a coming of age story, in some ways, emphasizing generational differences with regard to responsibility, values, culture, rites of passage. It’s a powerful depiction of challenges both external and internal – from society, from within a family, and from one’s own internal turmoil regarding self-worth and maturity.
There is one scene in the film between Walter and his mother that’s particularly memorable to me and is my favorite of Mr. Poitier’s in this. Desolate and lost, Walter Lee is sitting in a bar he escapes to all too often as the tough going gets tougher. Lena shows up unexpectedly to get her son. When Walter sees her, in a matter of seconds, a myriad of emotions are visible on his face without his speaking a word – despair, shame, defeat, anger, sadness. Gorgeous acting. I wonder how this wonderful scene, all those feelings, came across on the stage.
It’s interesting to note that there was some strife during the production of this film and the play version between Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil. Mr. Poitier mentions the arguing between the two actors in his autobiography. They disagreed on whether the story told here was best served if told from the mother’s perspective or from the son’s. I can speculate that the friction only enhanced the story and performances. The “clash” between these two characters in the film and all that results is the story’s driving force. In a real sense the two actor’s vying for their own character’s perspective to be the one could only have helped make this such a powerful story. As a viewer, allegiances and empathy do change throughout.
Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil were both nominated for Golden Globe Awards for their performances in the movie. Ruby Dee won the Best Supporting Actress Award from the National Board of Review. A Raisin in the Sun was selected in 2005 to the U.S. Library of Congress National Film Registry. The purpose of the registry is to preserve films that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films.”
Here is the film’s producer, David Susskind introducing the official trailer, from 1961…
“The Prize-Winning Drama That Warms The Screen With Its People and Its Passions!…”
A Raisin in the Sun should be watched. That is the recommendation from this film fan. This film stays with you for a bit after viewing.