in Criterion Month

A Raisin In The Sun (1961)

As you might guess, my desire to watch and review A Raisin In The Sun came out of the passing of the great Sidney Poitier earlier this year. While the film may not be one of the most widely seen in his filmography, it still feels crucial in capturing what might be Poitier’s defining role on the stage. After diving a bit into some of Poitier’s other films throughout this year, it was refreshing to see Poitier here in the kind of role that’s a little pricklier than the film roles he’s known for. Virgil Tibbs is probably the definitive example of the ultra-competent professionals he plays in movies that are just as much about his characters themselves as they are about white people’s relationships with their own prejudice toward them. However, in this film with an almost entirely Black cast written by one of the shining stars of mid-20th century theater, he’s able to do something a little more complex and nuanced, which can also be said about the film’s depiction of an African-American family trying to escape their cramped apartment in Chicago.

That family is the Youngers, who are all awaiting a life insurance check to come in the mail giving them some much-needed financial flexibility in the wake of their patriarch’s death. Though the money is going to the wife of the deceased, Lena (played by Claudia McNeil), who wants to invest the money in a house, her son Walter Lee (Sidney Poitier), has more grand ambitions. He wants to invest in a liquor store in the hopes of building up the kind of fortune and opportunity that he’s been denied so far in his life. Walter’s wife, Ruth (Ruby Dee), is more on Lena’s side, looking to have more space to raise their son, while Walter’s sister Beaneatha (Diana Sands) wants to use the money to become a doctor. After the check comes in, Lena decides to put down the money on a house in a mostly white neighborhood, but is passively-aggressively asked by a representative from the neighborhood to consider taking a cash settlement to move somewhere else.

As you might expect from a movie that is very much based on a play, a lot of what’s compelling about this story comes less from the plot, though there are plenty of themes woven into the story that have a lot to say about being Black in America. But really what makes this movie so compelling is its characterizations and the way each actor inhabits them. You’ve got Walter, this guy who’s a bit of a mess, constantly feeling slighted by having to spend his days working as a chauffeur, while his drinking and scheming make it hard for the audience to decide if he really deserves a chunk of that money. In contrast, you’ve got Lena as this embodiment of an earlier generation who’s just happy to have a roof over her head and to follow the tenants of Christianity, though a new house would be a nice cherry on top of a hard-scrabble life that nonetheless always retained its dignity.

Probably my favorite of the characters here is Beneatha, who despite her desire to become a doctor is a bit of a free spirit, often going from one new interest to another. Her latest fascination is spurred on by befriending a man from Nigeria, inspiring her to take an interest in her African heritage, which the rest of the family mostly scoffs at. Then in the background of everything that goes on over the course of this story, you’ve got Ruth, the put-upon housewife who despite seeing all the anguish and emotional sparring that goes on between the family, manages to keep the household united despite the fact that Ruby Dee looks like she’s constantly holding back bursting into tears.

Probably the easiest complaint to lob at this movie — and one of the reasons it wasn’t met with widespread critical acclaim at the time — is that director Daniel Petrie doesn’t do a ton to open up this material visually. It does have its occasional detours outside of the Youngers’ apartment, but for the most part, it all takes place in one location and doesn’t try to do too much to embellish that fact. However, the material and the acting is so strong that I don’t think that really matters much. Lorraine Hansberry’s script (adapting her own stage play) is such a nuanced look at Black life at the turn of the ’60s and feels so much more thoughtful than many of the social issue dramas that Sydney Poitier did around this time that it’s hard not to be struck by how the material still feels relevant and not like a preachy product of the Civil Rights era.

The film also feels vital just because it documents with invaluable accuracy how Hansberry’s play was a gamechanger in the theater world, especially when it retains almost all of the original Broadway cast. It’s been said that A Raisin In The Sun was the first play that both Black and white audiences went to go see, as the universality of the story was certainly specific to the African-American experience, but you could also see traces of the Youngers in any working-class family.

Then the fact that Hansberry had a hand in the making of the film gives it an even greater significance, since she would die only a few years later at the age of 35, and in the process inspire the Nina Simone song “Young, Gifted, and Black”. I wish I wasn’t writing this review in such a rushed state, as I would’ve liked to dive a little further into A Raisin In The Sun the play as well as Hansberry’s career as a whole, since she seems like a fascinating figure. Though I suppose the fact that seeing this film has inspired me to wander down these corridors of past creativity is the kind of thing that makes these Criterion months worthwhile.