Sidney Poitier: A Raisin in the Sun (US 1961)

Ruth (Ruby Dee) and Walter Lee Younger (Sidney Poitier)

I’d known about this film for a long time, but never attempted to see it. I assumed it was a ‘worthy’ filmed play. But when I began to watch as many Sidney Poitier films as possible, I decided to rent the Criterion Blu-ray available on Cinema Paradiso. My assumptions proved misguided at best. I was totally gripped by the film, staying up until 2 am to watch it through. I knew it was of some cultural importance but I didn’t actually know the half of it.

Lorraine Hansberry (from pbs.org)

The original play was written by Lorraine Hansberry and when the production reached Broadway in 1959, she became the youngest, the first African American and only the fifth woman to write a Broadway play. Hansberry died tragically young at the age of only 34 from cancer in 1965. She also provided the inspiration for the Nina Simone song, ‘Young, Gifted and Black’.  What a woman! Her parents were middle-class and it was their experience in moving into a previously all white neighbourhood of Chicago which provided the central idea for the play. The Criterion Blu-ray includes a host of extras, including background on Ms Hansberry.

Lena (Claudia McNeil) wants to grow flowers in her own garden . . .

The production took some time to reach Broadway via openings outside New York and it was a struggle to put on the show – but eventually it found its audience and especially Black theatregoers (though not without dissenting voices). Its success meant that a Hollywood adaptation was inevitable and the rights were acquired by Columbia. The studio were prepared to allow Lorraine Hansberry to adapt her own play, but they weren’t prepared to hire the play’s original African American director Lloyd Richards (who was actually born in Canada as the son of a Jamaican migrant father), claiming he had limited experience of either film or television. At that point he had appeared as an actor on television and as himself in two TV series about the theatre. Instead, Columbia hired the Canadian director Daniel Petrie who had ten years of experience directing dramas, including live plays on US TV, but only one feature film for the cinema (The Bramble Bush in 1960 with Richard Burton and Barbara Rush). Columbia also kept a tight reign on Hansberry. Supposedly worried that the film might be off-putting for white audiences, they barred the use of African American speech patterns and several subjects that Hansberry wanted to broach. Fortunately they didn’t veto the original cast so all the principal players appeared in the film.

. . . no longer only house plants? This MCU shot signifies the power of a cinematoc melodrama

Plot outline

The play features an African American family on Chicago’s South Side. It appears to be a family located on the boundary of working-class/lower middle-class. They live in a rented two bedroom apartment. Father has died and it is his life insurance money that drives the narrative. Mother (Lena) is about to cease full-time work as a domestic servant. Her eldest son is Walter Lee, a chauffeur and her daughter Beneatha is a student hoping to enter medical school. Walter Lee is married to Ruth and they have a son Travis. Walter Lee wants to use at least part of the money to open a bar with two friends. Some of the money should be used to pay Beneatha’s school fees. As the plot develops, it becomes clear that Lena has plans to use the money to put a deposit on a house in a white suburb – the only decent house she can find at the right price. If she goes through with her plan there will be consequences, possibly for Walter Lee and Beneatha. There is also the possibility of a reaction from white residents.

Beneatha (Diana Sands) with her Nigerian boyfriend Joseph Asagai (Ivan Dixon)

The film’s title is taken from the 1951 poem ‘Harlem’ by 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?

The concept of ‘deferred gratification’ is often quoted as marking the difference between working-class and middle-class approaches to life in capitalist societies. In this play, Walter Lee’s aspiration, after working as a chauffeur for many years, is a business venture whereas Beneatha is prepared to give up several years of earnings in the hope of earning a higher salary in future. For Walter Lee, earning money, ‘making money’, is what defines him as a man. For Beneatha it is acquiring learning and culture that will define her. But for Lena it is family that is most important and that means a home in which the family can thrive. These are universal issues but Hansberry’s play also presents the specific context of African American life and weaves the specificities of certain issues into the narrative. The play’s origination in housing issues and specifically the racial segregation experienced, even in the North before the ‘Fair Housing Act’ as part of the 1968 Civil Rights legislation, is one aspect of this. Beneatha has two suitors in the play. George Murchison is a successful business man and an ‘assimilated’ African American. But Beneatha spends more time with Joseph Asagai, a Yoruba student from Nigeria who tries to educate her about Africa (many (most?) African Americans of this era knew little about Africa). Hughes’ poem about a ‘dream deferred’ points to all the problems associated with African American life in the 1950s.

The filmed play

Stage adaptations have long had a bad rap among film critics and scholars and I confess to having avoided them whenever possible. However, in this case I think the adaptation works. The first major issue is whether to ‘open out’ the play in order to make it more ‘cinematic’. This can produce a very artificial sense of shooting an outdoor scene just for the sake of it. Petrie uses three main scenes outside the apartment – Walter Lee seen as a chauffeur at work and again in his local bar meeting his friends and the whole family visiting the house in the suburbs. The first of these is not strictly necessary but the other two add something significant. But the vast majority of the long running time (128 minutes) remains in the apartment. The studio set was designed and lit to enable particular framings and shot compositions. The most notable feature of the camerawork is the use of deep focus. This means that on occasions shots can be organised so that the whole depth of the apartment could be utilised with characters in the foreground, middle ground and background. There is also a number of high angle and low angle shots inside the rooms. The overall effect is not an expressionist style in which the the mise en scène plays an exaggerated role, but a form of realism in which the emotional playing of the actors can be highlighted. Charles Lawton Jr. was an interesting choice as cinematographer. He was a veteran, often associated with Westerns. Two of the directors he worked with were John Ford and Orson Welles, both known for deep focus staging. He had also worked on live TV plays.

Walter Lee responds to African drumming when Beneatha wears an African print

Since the cast were very familiar with the script they were able to approach their roles with confidence and move freely through the set. As well as Sidney Poitier playing Walter Lee and Ruby Dee again playing the Poitier character’s wife on screen, the other two main players were Claudia McNeil as Lena and Diana Sands as Beneatha. I’m not sure if stage productions are less age-specific in casting, but Claudia McNeil was playing much older than her real age – she was only twelve years older than Poitier. All the central performances are excellent. Most reviews of the play and the film acknowledge the standout performance as Poitier’s and argue that it is a play focused primarily on Walter Lee. I didn’t feel this so strongly. I wouldn’t want to put one performance ahead of the others, but as a narrative I thought this was Lena’s story. Perhaps it is because I see it as a family melodrama which in film and television is usually focused on the women.

This composition of Lena and her daughter in deep focus and with Ruth, the daughter-in-law in the background and two mirror images is a familiar family melodrama image

Commentary

This does appear to be a play which is both specific to the African American experience in the 1950s and early 1960s but is also relatable for universal audiences. As I watched it I did think of the so-called ‘kitchen sink’ dramas of the British New Wave including the stage play Look Back in Anger (1959) and the literary adaptation A Kind of Loving (1962). I was also reminded of a Spanish film, Luis García Berlanga’s The Executioner (1963). These may all sound unlikely comparisons but they each explore working-class ‘aspirations’ around more or less the same period. They also each use a similar form of what is now known in Europe as social realism. To be more specific, The Executioner uses a neo-realist idea in that a young man accepts the job of executioner for the Spanish state because it confers access to public housing (he has no desire to execute people but he needs a house for his wife and child and father-in-law). A Raisin in the Sun follows the same neo-realist idea – introduce a simple change to the lives of an ‘ordinary family’ and explore what happens. In this case $10,000 dollars of insurance money, rather than ‘solving’ the family’s problems exposes some of the tensions which lie below the surface of family life in South Chicago.

A ‘Big Close-up’ of Poitier as Walter Lee

Walter Lee with his ‘business partners’ in the bar

I feel that director Petrie, cinematographer Lawton and the whole creative team were able to showcase the emotional performances of the principal players. The images presented in this post (including a selection of screengrabs from dvdbeaver.com) show how a stage play can be adapted effectively for the big screen. Poitier is well served by Petrie. His very physical performance is enhanced by the camerawork and compositions. When I consider how Poitier is presented in this film, I see a distinct change from the 1950s roles in films like No Way Out (1950) and Edge of the City (1957). In those films he still feels trapped within the concept of the ‘good Negro’ but Walter Lee is allowed to be human, to ‘fail’, to be cruel and insensitive and to be shamed by his mother. It is the strength of the characterisation of the three women in his life that makes this possible.

The Criterion website is an excellent resource and carries two useful essays on the film as well as details of the Blu-ray and DVD. If you are going to watch this film, I urge you to consider watching the Criterion disc.

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