02nd Oct2018

‘A Raisin in the Sun’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Louis Gossett Jr, Ivan Dixon | Written by Lorraine Hansberry | Directed by Daniel Petrie


In the early 1960s, in a Chicago ghetto apartment, a black family is on the cusp of great change. It’s all because of an insurance cheque that the grandmother is about to receive. Ten thousand dollars – but what to do with it? She wants to buy a bigger home to contain three generations of her family. Her son, Walt (Sidney Poitier), the passionate patriarch, is thinking bigger. He doesn’t want to hide in the suburbs; he wants to push forward the fate of the “coloured” man.

The arguments over the purpose of the windfall are the maguffin to the real regrets and resentments hiding just below the surface of this borderline impoverished family. Walt’s wife, Ruth (Ruby Dee), is caught between two worlds: the hope of something magnificent in her husband’s scheme, and the simple reality of living, of surviving. She’s just found out she’s pregnant with their second child. Then there’s Walt’s sister, Beneatha (Diana Sands). Younger, and without the responsibilities of family, she flits from hobby to hobby, unshackled by duty, determined to finish her med degree. Walt may be ambitious when it comes to the lot of the black brother, but he’s less advanced when it comes to sisters. Why can’t Beneatha simply settle for being a nurse instead of a fully-fledged doctor?

Negotiating these conflicts brings heartbreak and tears and laughter, and virtually the whole film is set in a single, studio apartment. That it manages to remain compelling, even at over two hours, is quite a feat, and it’s down to Lorraine Hansberry, adapting the sparkling script from her own stage play. The dialogue is a rich blend of socio-realism and heightened emotion. Only toward the end does veteran director Daniel Petrie allow events to slip into melodrama, with some first-rate scenery-chewing.

At times like these, Sidney Poitier looks like he’s acting for a balcony audience (the Broadway show began only two years earlier). But then, Walt does have the greatest heavy lifting when it comes to unbridled emotion. He is a man desperate to do right by his family – it’s just that his family happens to include the entire African-American community. Beneatha goes the opposite direction, dismissing God and duty and focusing on discovering herself – something she tries to achieve, amusingly, by adopting the services of a young Nigerian student (Ivan Dixon), who romanticises the old country to a ludicrous degree.

It’s the grandmother who keeps it all together. At once a fusspot, Lena develops throughout the story into a wise and powerful mentor, giving short shrift to the outbursts and impulses of her children. The brilliant Claudia McNeil infuses Lena with the dignity of an older woman who has seen the worst of humanity – and lost the best of it in her late husband – and is now using that experience to guide her successors toward some semblance of the good life. She delivers a tremendous life message we can all learn from: Love is at its most valuable not when the going is good, but when things get tough.

Petrie shoots in lovely long takes, allowing us to savour the performances, which are excellent across the board. It’s an ensemble portraying a family that feels truly lived in, and there’s nothing to detract from the domestic dynamics. Laurence Rosenthal’s delicate score adds subtle texture, rather than informing us of emotion – quite unusual for films of the period.

A Raisin in the Sun is about a black family in a time of segregation, but it’s clever and subversive enough not to be explicitly polemic. Indeed, this is how Hansberry became the first African-American writer to hit Broadway. The sorry state of civil rights of the time is a distant backdrop at first, before gradually coming into focus as the Younger family edges toward the gated realm of white suburbia. There, they come into contact with the “New Neighbours Orientation Committee”. Rather than being outwardly racist, the group’s bigotry is veiled (the weasely rep likes to deploy the phrase, “You people.”) The organisation represents the nature of white so-called progressives – of the time and perhaps of today. The film’s climactic moral conundrum is a real head-scratcher, raising questions of justice and vengeance.

Undoubtedly, A Raisin in the Sun still has modern relevance. No wonder the adaptations keep coming, thick and fast, most recently returning to the stage in 2017. It’s a timeless tale of multi-generational family dynamics, and in that sense it’s universal. It’s also a damning indictment of the underlying bigotry, the conscious and unconscious biases, that lie at the heart of America, even now. But for all the crises it depicts, it’s a net positive story, one which quietly celebrates the natural, logical, unassailable march of social progress.


  • 1961 audio interview with writer Lorraine Hansberry
  • 2018 interview with author Imani Perry, on Hansberry
  • 2018 programme with film scholar Mia Mask, focusing on the film’s production struggles
  • 2002 episode of Theater Talk, a programme focusing on the Broadway production
  • 1978 documentary, “Black Theatre: The Making of a Movement”
  • 2002 interview with director Daniel Petrie
  • Trailer

A Raisin in the Sun is out now on Blu-ray from Criterion.


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