Saturday, September 19, 2020

Lorraine Hansberry's Words Shine Brightly in A Raisin in the Sun

Based on the play of the same name by Lorraine Hansberry (who also penned the screenplay adaptation of her work), A Raisin in the Sun follows the Younger family, which consists of Walter Lee (Sidney Poiter), his wife Ruth (Ruby Dee), his sister Beneatha (Diana Sands), his son Travis (Stephen Perry) and his Mom Lena (Claudia McNeil). They all live together in a small apartment. Walter Lee is always looking off to the horizon, hoping he can procure a scheme that'll ensure financial security for his family. Such security comes around in the form of a life insurance check delivered to the family in the wake of Lena's husband passing away. With $10,000 at the family's disposal, what kind of future awaits them?

A Raisin in the Sun's roots as a play is easy to discern. The fact that it all primarily takes place in the Younger living room, the emphasis on extended dialogue exchanges, all of it could be executed on a play stage quite easily. For the most part, A Raisin in the Sun actually fares well in being translated to film save for one notable issue: music. In a stage version of this show, there likely wouldn't be any musical accompaniment. When Lena gives Walter the $10,000 check, for example, all we would here is Lena's dialogue as she hands off this important gift to her son. The intimacy of the moment would be reinforced by how there's nothing to distract from her words.

In the film version, though, that particular scene gets undercut by the presence of Laurence Rosenthal's score. The music isn't inherently bad, but here it beats viewers over the head with the mood of the scene. The stirring score interrupts what should be a quiet moment between mother and son.  This problem recurs throughout the production, the music keeps overwhelming conversations between characters. It's as if director Daniel Petrie was worried viewers would get bored if there wasn't constant music playing. Hansberry's words were already stirring enough in a stage-format. Thet didn't need an occasionally ham-fisted score to ram home their underlying meaning.

Aside from that issue, though, A Raisin in the Sun makes the jump to the big screen admirably. Petrie and cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr.'s work behind the camera is impressively retrained. These two trust subtle filmmaking to be the perfect mechanism to capture such thoughtfully-crafted performances. That trust turns out to be wisely placed. This style of filmmaking allows us to absorb the individual characters and their complex relationships with one another. In particular. Walter Lee proves to be a fascinating contradiction of a man. He wants to be free of the societal restrictions America places on Black men, yet he so often discourages Dorothea from subverting those same restrictions in her doctoral pursuits.

This is the kind of morally complex character I get fascinated by, a person who can inspire my frustration one moment and then inspire my total sympathies the next. I wouldn't have minded more of an exploration of the inner life of Ruth, particularly in regards to how she's grappling with her unexpected pregnancy. Still, Ruby Dee manages to give the character her own distinct personality while Diana Sands and especially Claudia McNeil deliver great work in supporting roles. Hansberry's writing gives most of these performers such richly-drawn characters to play. Unsurprisingly, it's a treat to watch those figures be married to such committed performances.

What is surprising is just how emotionally affecting A Raisin in the Sun turns out to be. Isn't that a wonderful feeling? You're just watching a movie and then the big poignant finale arrives and you realize just how emotionally invested you are in everything. Previously, Wings was my go-to example of this phenomenon, but maybe A Raisin in the Sun will become another example I turn to. Watching Walter Lee quietly stand up against Mark Linder (John Fielder), and n the process reaffirm the humanity of his family, is such a touching sight to see. What really got my waterworks going, though, was Walter Lee's mention of how his sister "is going to be a doctor...and we're all so proud of her." I'm getting a little misty-eyed just thinking about it! Even before this moving climax, though, this 1961 film adaptation of A Raisin in the Sun does the original Lorraine Hansberry play proud.

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