A Raisin in the Sun (1961) – An excellently acted film based on the Pulitzer-winning play

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Based on Lorraine Hansberry’s Pulitzer award-winning play of the same name, A Raisin in the Sun is a riveting and deeply affecting film that was at the time considered as ground-breaking as the play it was based upon. The film was directed by a Canadian filmmaker called Daniel Petrie who was mostly known for his work in television. The original play had the distinction of being the only Broadway play to feature an all African-American cast with the exception of one white actor. And it was the first play by an African-American to win a Pulitzer prize. All the actors play their respective roles in the film adaptation as well. The film opens inside the small apartment of an African-American family with an argument between the principals.  The stifling atmosphere inside their apartment gets worse as each of them indulge in one heated discussion or the other.

Sidney Poitier plays Walter Lee, a chauffeur working for a rich white man and Ruby Dee plays Ruth, his wife. Ruth works as a domestic maid. They have a young son Travis and they share the apartment with Lee’s sister Beneatha, who wishes to be a doctor, and his mother Lena Younger (played by Claudia McNeil). Lena is the proud and strong-headed matriarch of the family and is referred to as “Mama”. She too, works as a domestic maid. The opening argument that morning revolves around insurance check that is about to arrive in the mail anytime soon. Lee and Ruth are trying to make ends meet and fight to somehow survive day after day. The check would consist of $10,000 and was left by Lena’s deceased husband Walter Younger.

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Lee has some dreams of his own and no longer wishes to spend the rest of his life working as the slave of a white man. He hopes to persuade his Mama to give him some of that money so that he can invest it in a liquor business that he and his friends are planning together. He hopes to use Ruth to do this for him but she won’t listen. Not only Ruth but Beneatha mocks Lee’s dreams as well. His frustration gets to him and everyone in the house has to bear his temper tantrums every day. And to make things worse, Mama doesn’t approve of his plans. And he vents his frustration on her as well, blaming her for not allowing him to progress and make a better life for himself.  There is a line that Claudia McNeil (who plays Mama) tells Poitier: “All you worry about is money. In the olden days, we used to worry about freedom.”

She is a devout Christian and is proud of her family. She continually tries to remind everyone of the importance of preserving cultural and traditional values. She desperately struggles to keep her family together and not let financial troubles and other worries break up their family. She serves as the primary voice of the film and stresses the importance of not forgetting one’s responsibilities and faith in their family and keeping it together even when one is faced with oppressive and challenging circumstances.  When the money finally arrives, she uses some of it to buy a better house for them as she thinks it’s time for “doing something different”. While everyone else is elated at the thought, Lee is devastated. He tries to drown his sorrows in alcohol. There is a very moving scene where Mama finds him inside the pub that he usually frequently and gives him the rest of the money and tells him that she trusts him with it.

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A point is also made about how racial issues stand in the way of progress. When they decide to move into their new place, a representative of the neighborhood’s all-white community persuade them to live elsewhere. The performances from all the actors are remarkable, especially those of Poitier’s and McNeil’s. I couldn’t find a dull moment in the film as all of the characters kept me transfixed to the screen for two hours. I read somewhere that there was actually some real tension between Poitier and McNeil as during the staging of the play, McNeil and Poitier argued about whose point-of-view that the play should support. But if that were the case, I can see that the tension has only enhanced their performances and didn’t in any way disrupt it. This is one of those films that announced that Poitier was a formidable acting talent.

 

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