Release Date(s)1961 (September 25, 2018)
Studio(s)Columbia Pictures (Criterion – Spine #945)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: A
A Raisin in the Sun is about a working class African American family from Chicago at a watershed moment in their lives. Walter Lee Younger (Sidney Poitier) is a chauffeur and the family’s primary breadwinner. His wife, Ruth (Ruby Dee), and his mother, Lena (Claudia McNeil), work as domestics to supplement the family income. They all live crowded into a two-bedroom apartment with his younger sister, Beneatha (Diana Sands), and Walter Lee and Ruth’s young son. Walter Lee dreams of freeing his family from its bleak lifestyle by hard work and finding the right business opportunity. After the death of Walter Lee and Beneatha’s father, the family receives his life insurance check for $10,000 and conflict arises as how to spend it. Lena Younger wants to buy a house for the family and help put her daughter through med school, but Walter has other plans.
Based on the play by Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun is set mostly in the Younger’s cramped apartment. Asagai (Ivan Dixon), a friend of Beneatha’s from school, represents modern ideas by an outsider that foresee the 50s and 60s civil rights movement. As Walter looks into a business venture that will provide his family security, an unexpected visit from a homeowners association representative (John Fiedler) is welcomed by the Youngers, excited at the prospect of owning a home of their own.
Performances are uniformly excellent. Though the film is dialogue-heavy, as each family member expresses his/her hopes for the future, director Daniel Petrie keeps the pace brisk. He opens the action only briefly to show Walter Lee at work, the bar where he escapes to drown his sorrows, and the house that promises a brighter future for them all.
Poitier is outstanding, conveying a range of emotions from exhilaration, humor, affection, anger, surprise, to utter defeat. His Walter Lee is a walking bomb on a short fuse, pent-up frustration eating him from the inside. Walter teases Beneatha about her desire to become a doctor, verbally jousts with Asagai about the world and its expectations and, though he loves his strong-willed mother, argues with her about what to do with the money.
Ms. McNeil’s Lena Younger is an imposing figure. Her conversations with Walter are especially powerful as she attempts to talk sense to him while not diminishing his dignity. She is wise and loving, her convictions a formidable match for Walter’s stubbornness.
The Criterion Collection’s dual-layer Blu-ray release is a newly restored 4K digital 1080p transfer from the 35-mm original camera negative. Aspect ratio is 1.85:1. The black-and-white film looks terrific, consistent with Criterion’s high standard, with deep black levels. It is pristine throughout, with no scratches or other visual imperfections. The uncompressed 24-bit monaural soundtrack was remastered from the 35-mm magnetic master. Sound is consistent, with dialogue crisp and easy to follow. Actors speak clearly and are mumble-free.
Bonus extras are plentiful and provide a thorough understanding of the creation of the play, its importance to black theatre, and the movie’s planning, filming, and reception by audiences and critics.
Lorraine Hansberry Interview – In this 1961 audio-only interview, with stills from the movie shown throughout, author Hansberry discusses the conflict between human dignity and money, maintaining that doing something purposeful overrides financial concerns. She notes that the character of Lena is in many ways tied to older times yet looks to a more promising future. A play, according to Hansberry, should transport the viewer.
A Dream Realized – Imani Perry, author of Looking for Lorraine, provides background on the author. Arriving in New York in 1950, Hansberry wrote for a newspaper run by Paul Robeson, worked as a theatre and film critic, and became immersed in social issues. The Younger family’s story is partly based on her own family’s experience desegregating a white neighborhood. She was subject to jeers and insults, and was nearly hit by a brick thrown through the window of their home. Perry discusses the post-World War II goal of home ownership being more elusive for blacks because of racial marginalization. Though the play and movie were made after the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, new forms of Jim Crow had arisen up north.
Portrait of Sidney Poitier – The actor had made 8 movies and was cast in the play to assure that it had a chance to be produced. Poitier was responsible for getting Lloyd Richards hired to direct the play.
Daniel Petrie Interview – Petrie tells how he was chosen to direct A Raisin in the Sun and refers to Poitier as “a joy to work with.” He recounts that the film was shot on a low budget and just about broke even at the box office.
Theater Talk – This 2002 episode features producer Philip Rose and actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis discussing the genesis of the play and film. Dee expected that Rose wanted her for Beneatha and was surprised he was considering her for the role of Ruth. Davis took over the role of Walter Lee on Broadway after Poitier had left the show. Rose discusses a reading in Hansberry’s apartment of the unfinished play that inspired him to produce it. The title of the film comes from a poem by Langston Hughes.
Black Theater: The Making of a Movement – This 1978 piece has a new introduction by Woodie King, Jr., founder of the New Federal Theatre, who relates the importance of A Raisin in the Sun to the black theater movement and to mainstream theater as well. He explains how the play provided inspiration, as Hansberry articulated what many black artists were feeling. Its universal themes appealed to a wide audience.
Booklet – The 24-page booklet contains the poem Harlem by Langston Hughes, which contains the line “…a raisin in the sun,” as well as the film’s cast and credits. An essay by Sarita Cannon, Resistance and Joy, explores Lorraine Hansberry’s desire to heighten focus on the political significance of the Youngers’ story in the screenplay and tells how she was thwarted by studio censorship. Wanting the film to reach the widest possible audience, she acceded to the studio’s changes and was “relieved that the film remained true to the parameters of her play.” A second essay, Sweet Lorraine, written by James Baldwin in 1969, discusses their relationship during the genesis of A Raisin in the Sun. It’s accompanied by a full-page photo of Hansberry. Three stills from the movie are also included.
Trailer – Producer David Susskind introduces the film, citing the play as winner of the New York Film Critics Award. Brief excerpts from the movie are shown.
- Dennis Seuling