It’s surprising that “A Raisin in the Sun” is just as socially and politically relevant today as it was in 1961. Deep down while “A Raisin in the Sun” is a family drama, it’s also a film about inequality both in housing and socially. It’s about the poor and have nots looking for their own big break in a world that’s unfairly balanced in another direction entirely. It’s very easy to see where the stage play ends and the film begins, as “A Raisin in the Sun” is primarily a one setting drama about people looking for their own exit from a situation that offers them absolutely no future of wider horizons.
The Younger family lives together in a dilapidated one bedroom apartment in the South Side of Chicago, getting by in small earnings. While the head of the clan Lena is mourning the death of her husband, she eagerly awaits a $10,000 life insurance check he left for her that’s due any day. As they all wait for the arrival of the check, Walter, a limo driver for a wealthy white man, is anxious to convince his mother to lend him some of the money so he can invest in a liquor store with his friends. Although his wife Ruth is perfectly fine with their life, Walter is eager to convince his family, all of whom think their mother should make the decision. This includes head strong sister Beneathea who is going to school to become a doctor. Lena expresses the desire to buy their very first house, and as the check arrives, Walter and the women in the Younger family engage in a battle about their futures.
Sidney Poitier is gripping among a cast of other brilliant performers playing the perpetually flawed but ambitious Walter Younger. Walter is a man who has spent his last few years thinking and dreaming about something that has kept him distanced from his entire family. Walter is plotting to invest in a business that he hopes can get him out of his world and in to a brand new avenue of success and respect, but it’s all easier said than done. The characters in “A Raisin in the Sun” all represent ideals about America that every single person aspires to, but not many can reach. Mostly because it’s out of reach, or because it’s purposely kept out of reach. Claire Benedict’s fantastic turn as matriarch Lena is a wonderful symbol of a parent that has worked for a better future for their children.
All the while Walter is someone who wants to be the future, rather than work had for little rewards like his father who passed years earlier. Walter’s sister Beneathea is the dreamer who has the right path on the way to becoming a promising doctor, but also is struggling for her own identity in a house hold that’s suppressed a lot of her own ambitions. Meanwhile Ruby Dee’s character Ruth represents either the future or a dead end for Walter, as she learns she’s pregnant. Ruth is also someone who can’t quite figure out how to respond to the news of a new child, with the narrative delving in to her possibly having an abortion. “A Raisin in the Sun” is a battle of wills and sexes in a house that’s seen many people come and go. To his detriment, Walter clings to the hope that he can be different than his own father who never saw anything but the four walls inhabits with his large family.
The check is very much the driving factor of what triggers a longing for changer and bigger aspirations. The move for different and better comes crashing down when they’re approached by Mr. Mark Lindner, a perfectly friendly and accommodating white man who expresses discontent from his “committee” that belongs to the neighborhood the Youngers are going to move in to. It’s a particularly tense and cruel scene, especially in the way Lindner approaches the brood with certainty and false smiles that gleam with pure prejudice. Sadly, Daniel Petrie’s direction is the victim of a film committed to being staged like the play, but in spite of that “A Raisin in the Sun” is a stellar character piece and brilliant family drama about the struggle for the American dream and what we’re willing to do to have our own piece of it.
The Criterion comes with a 24 Page Booklet containing the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes where he coined the term that became the title “A Raisin in the Sun.” There’s also a list of the film’s cast and credits, an essay by Sarita Cannon called “Resistance and Joy,” which explores author Lorraine Hansberry’s aspirations to discuss the political significance of the Youngers’ story, and how studio censorship interfered with the overall narrative. There’s a second essay called “Sweet Lorraine” written by James Baldwin in 1969 which discusses his relationship with Hansberry during the development of “A Raisin in the Sun.” It’s accompanied by a photo of Hansberry, along with three stills from the film.
Featured in the packed Criterion Edition, there’s an audio only 1961 interview with Lorraine Hansberry, with stills from the movie featured. She discusses the ideas of human dignity and its relation to money, as well as the symbolism of the character Lena. “A Dream Realized” is a discussion with Imani Perry, author of “Looking for Lorraine” who provides background on the author, including her work as a writer, how she based the play on her own family, and the story’s reflection of post-WWII family’s aspirations to own their own homes. “Portrait of Sidney Poitier” is a look at Poitier’s relation to the play and getting it produced. There’s an interview with Daniel Petrie, who discusses how he was chosen to direct “A Raisin in the Sun,” the low budget of the film and its box office earnings.
There’s a 2002 episode of “Theater Talk” which includes producer Philip Rose and actors Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis discussing the play, and the film’s genesis. As well, they talk about how Davis took over for Poitier when he left the play, and how Rose decided to produce the play. Producer David Susskind introduces the trailer for “A Raisin in the Sun” with brief excerpts from the film. Finally, “Black Theater: The Making of a Movement” is a 1978 piece with a new introduction by Woodie King Jr, the founder of the New Federal Theatre. He discusses the importance of “A Raisin in the Sun,” its relevance to the black theater movement and mainstream theater in general. He also explores the film’s universal themes and how it spoke to a wide audience.