‘A Raisin in the Sun’  — Compelling, powerful, prolific

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Written by Lorraine Hansberry, devout Civil Rights supporter, author, American playwright, and the youngest American to win a New York City Critics’ Circle Award, and directed by Daniel Pietre, known for exploring controversial subject matter such as racism before most directors would delve into such themes, “A Raisin in the Sun” was nominated in 1998 as one of the top 100 American films. Originally released by Columbia Pictures in 1961, the film chronicles the life of an African-American family barely making ends meet in segregated Chicago during the 1950s.

American playwright and author, Lorraine Hansberry.

“A Raisin in the Sun” obtains its name from the poem “Harlem” by acclaimed American poet, playwright and novelist Langston Hughes: 

     What happens to a dream deferred?

     Does it dry up

     like a raisin in the sun?

     Or fester like a sore—

     And then run?

     Does it stink like rotten meat?

     Or crust and sugar over—

     like a syrupy sweet?

     Maybe it just sags

     like a heavy load.

     Or does it explode?

In the opening scenes we meet a married couple — Ruth Younger (Ruby Dee) and Walter Lee Young (Sir Sidney Poitier) who, by the way,  received his noble title from Queen Elizabeth in 1974. Walter is disheartened in his conventional life of servitude, full of marital tension living in a two- bedroom apartment. He is a husband, discontented and wrought with inner conflict bubbling ever closer to the surface each day, yet determined to find means to provide a better future for himself and his family.

The exploding urgency is felt as Walter lashes out at the world, watching his opportunity pass, afraid that he must face a predestined life that he will be unable to change. His eternal restlessness subsequently strains the marriage. His soft-spoken wife suspects she may be pregnant. Knowing the family cannot afford another child she keeps the probable news to herself, and quietly struggles with maintaining her own sense of sanity while facing the daily weary battle of quelling her husband’s ambitions and inner demons to keep the peace. She, too, is clearly on the brink.

Walter’s solution is to pool money with friends to buy a liquor store and gain the wealth he desires.  Mama Lena (Claudia McNeil ), the matriarch and widow, awaits a $10,000 insurance check from the passing of her husband. Devout in her beliefs, she is unwilling to invest her husband’s insurance payout in Walter’s venture. This is where Walter begins to slowly spiral out of sorts — mood swings, spending more and more time at the bar, drinking away his woes, while his dreams eat at his psyche. Beneatha (Diana Sands) portrays the forward-thinking ambitious sister of Walter, who is studying to become a doctor.

Sir Sidney Poitier

Mama Lena, distraught, feels her family is losing its heart-centered structure after ultimately having an emotion-fueled conversation with her son, where there is a sharp divide on the idea of the American Dream.  She contemplates purchasing  a home for her family, while Walter wants to invest. When she reveals to Walter that his wife is pregnant and is considering aborting the baby, a tense scene follows, as he is eerily despondent. When Ruth returns from the doctor this is where we finally see her crack — where her inner turmoil boils over and she can no longer hold what she must release.

The moment she breaks down we know she is contemplating ending her unborn child’s life for the greater good of her family.  The mere fact that she is forced into such a position, complicated with her already troubled marriage and without enough financial means is where her anguish originates.

Mama Lena, makes her decision using a portion of the insurance payout to purchase a single family home in a middle-class all-white neighborhood for the family.  When Ruth learns that Mama has purchased a home, she’s overjoyed with the news. Her performance is convincingly moving in desperate relief that is transparently evident in her eyes and reaction.

After learning Walter has missed work for several days, Mama finds Walter in the local bar. Finally,  his rage is unmasked as a vulnerable man who feels he has nowhere to turn, and in his mother’s compassionate eyes his pain is unearthed. He is angry — he yearns for the chance to have a chance, and feels this may be his one shot to grasp his dream. Mama decides to entrust the remainder of the money to Walter for his investment and safekeeping, renewing his faith in himself.

While packing the apartment the inevitable happens, as a representative of the all-white community meets the Youngers in their home, politely offering a check aimed to keep them out of the neighborhood, to which the Youngers bitterly decline. Walter’s co-investor in the liquor venture visits with the crushing news that the third investor has stolen the money, of which Walter gave his entire share — including the portion earmarked for his sister’s college education. It is an extremely dramatic scene; however, the following scene where the family learns the remaining money is lost is heart wrenching, as Walter clings to his mother, on his knees, inconsolably distraught with what he has done.

Ruth continues to pack, unwilling to face the possibility that her dreams of a new life have been destroyed, clearly on the edge of a breakdown.

When Beneatha admonishes her brother, we see Mama’s true heart in correcting her daughter’s backward thinking by explaining to her the ease of offering love when circumstances are favorable, but that love is truly required the most when circumstances are rough.

“When do you think the time is to love somebody … it’s when he is at his lowest and he can’t believe in himself ’cause the world done whipped him so. When you start measurin’ somebody measure him right.”  

Walter’s solution is to take the money being offered, as a means to exclude his family from the neighborhood. Although his family disagrees, and internally he does as well, he tries to convince himself that he will hold no guilt for his decision.  When the representative of the town returns, as he stands in front of his family and his only son, Walter’s heart overrules his intellect and he decides against his original decision, restoring his family’s faith.

Ruby Dee and Claudia McNeil.

It “seems” the movie comes to a happy ending, with the family moving forward to a new life, however, what the Youngers are about to face in pioneering to a destination where they are unwanted, remains in the balance, although history has given us an accurate assumption of the hardship to come. This would parallel the real-life experience of the author.  During Hansberry’s childhood, her parents moved the family to an all-white, middle-class neighborhood. White crowds gathered outside of Hansberry’s home and threw bricks, one of which, crashing through a window, nearly missed Hansberry.

Ruby Dee, an acclaimed  actress, performing over six-decades, was married to the equally-acclaimed Ossie Davis for over five decades, until his death. She was nominated eight times for daytime/prime time Emmys, worked into her 80s earning a Screen Actors Guild Award at 83, for her 2007 portrayal of Mama Lewis in “American Gangster” opposite Denzel Washington. In the role of Ruth Younger, she offered a brilliant performance — soft, pure in spirit, containing her emotions so as not to propel the already growing unbalance.

Diana Sands

Diana Sands, twice nominated for a Tony and and Emmy, is one of the first black leading ladies and one of the first black actresses to garner a role intended for a white actress. She starred in the groundbreaking interracial play co-starring Alan Alda, “The Owl and the Pussycat.” In “A Raisin in the Sun,” she offers intellectualized comic relief and the promise of a new generation’s dream.    

Claudia (Mae) McNeil , originally an internationally-acclaimed singer/stage performer, was best known for her role of Mama Lena Younger in “A Raisin in the Sun,” and exudes strength, delivering an authoritative performance.

Sir Sidney Poitier, a native of the Bahamas, made his way to New York via Miami before the age of 20.  His backstory is actually quite fascinating. His nominations and wins are numerous, most notable, his Oscar win in 1964 for “Lilies of the Field,”  his Lifetime Achievement Award in 1992, his Icon Award and BAFTA Award in 2016.

Stephen Perry and Mr. Sir Sidney Poitier.

Poitier admits his poor educational background and even poorer reading skills. In looking for employment as a dishwasher, Poitier happened upon an ad searching for actors in the newspaper right before he was to toss it n the trash. He went to an audition and failed miserably due to his weak reading skills, as well as his thick Bahamian accent. Nonetheless, he decided to pursue acting purely based on mending his bruised ego, and subsequently took classes in exchange for janitor duties at the studio.  

Although he once again faired poorly, his fellow classmates spoke up on his behalf, due to his amiable personality, and convinced his skeptical teacher. Poitier was cast as an understudy. On opening night Poitier performed when the actor slated to play his part, Mr. Harry Belafonte, was unable to attend. Poitier then moved on to Broadway and eventually was offered his first role in a movie, which he turned down, even though he was in financial constraints and his payment would have been more than enough to assist his situation. But Poitier rejected the role due to the fact that he felt the character, a father whose daughter is kidnapped and killed, reacted in an unrealistic manner by taking no action against his aggressors. Poitier cited his own father’s love of his children, and said that given the same circumstances, his father would avenge his child.

Poitier’s  parents were tomato farmers and when they were no longer allowed to sell their crop in the U.S., their business and money flow came to an abrupt end. Poitier moved to Miami at age 15, living with his brother’s family. In recalling an incident where he visited the police station looking  for information, he recants a police officer calling him the “N” word, to which he abruptly and authoritatively answered that he was the son of Reginald Poitier and his parents named him Sidney “THAT is my name,” he stated, recalling with laughter, that the officers in the station looked at him like he was insane.

He further explained that his upbringing in the Bahamas was one of respect for his elders and community, sighting examples, saying that when his mother was unable to work, her friends would gather food to help feed the family, a common Caribbean custom. As a result of being brought up in such an environment, he was inexperienced in western culture where minorities had submissive reactions to the authority of their white counterparts. He was intolerant of being treated this way, and he consciously demanded the same respect in his films.  Being of Caribbean descent myself, I can personally attest to the admiration and respect garnered for Poitier’s body of work. He steadfastly performed his parts with strength, truthful emotion, a healthy sense of pride and dignity, punctuating his self worth, not just as a man but as a human being. For this, his performances not only appealed to those who personally identified with his plight, but also across cultural boundaries.

“A Raisin in the Sun” triggers an internal physical reaction, tearing at emotions, causing one’s heart to beat faster, yet it offers a balance of scenes laced with humor. In most films there is generally a line of delineation. In “Raisin in the Sun” you are not an observer; somehow Pietre engulfs you within the film as if you are a part of each character, suddenly able to experience and empathize with  multiple points of views.

The moment Poitier enters a scene you can feel his intensity, as if he is in full possession of your emotional state. Even when he’s angry and volatile and explosive, instead of being repelled, Poitier magnetizes you into his pain. Only an actor who can comprehend a role authentically can play it authentically, and this is precisely what Portier executes. Here is a man, unraveling in continuous, cyclical  frustration, desperate for “stars gleaming he cannot reach out and grab.”

Although the movie takes place in the ’50s regardless of class or race, each generation has a new dream, a higher dream than the generation prior, and each generation prior will find dissonance in a younger generation’s means of fulfilling those dreams.

Hansberry passed away at the age of 34. She never completed her college degree, yet, she authored one of the most compelling, powerful prolific and timeless dramas of the 20th century, one that remains exceptionally relevant decade after decade.

Constance Cherise is a classic film columnist, disco era junkie, nostalgia aficionado, travel-ready foodie, free-spirited freelancer. Contact her at constance.cherise@gmail.com 

About this Author

Constance Cherise

Constance Cherise is a freelance writer and contributor for Turner Classic MoviesSee her work here.