A Raisin In The Sun: “a call to arms for the downtrodden, hardworking majority”

With a screenplay by the original playwright (Lorraine Hansberry), and featuring Sidney Poitier, a debut from Louis Gossett Jr, and a powerful cast of African-American performers, A Raisin In The Sun provides us with a kitchen-sink drama for the Civil Rights movement. Set in Chicago, and based on Hansberry’s 1959 stage play, the film centres on the struggles of the Youngers, a black Chicago family with a fierce matriarch at the helm. Lena (Claudia McNeil), is a strong, bloody-minded powerhouse of a woman, who nonetheless loves her children Walter (Poitier), and Beneatha (Diana Sands). Grieving over the loss of her husband, a working man who had struggled to keep the roof over his family’s head, Lena is patiently awaiting a $10,000 insurance cheque.

The impending influx of cash has split the family over what the money should be spent on. Walter, trying to leverage the friendship between Lena and his wife Ruth (Ruby Dee), is trying to persuade his mother to invest in a liquor store – a scheme concocted by Walter and two drinking buddies Willie Harris (played by Roy Glenn), and Bobo (Joel Fluellen). Ruth is reluctant, as she wants Lena to invest in a new house so that her young son Travis (Steven Perry) no longer has to wait until the adults have done in the living room before curling up in bed on the family sofa. She also looks forward to a time when both she and Lena can stop working in other people’s kitchens.

Meanwhile, Beneatha is studying to be a doctor and needs some financial help to get through her studies. Her aspirations are illustrated by the fact that she is dating the son of a local black businessman, George Murchison (Louis Gossett Jr). It is in this relationship that we see the first real evidence of shallowness – she is not in love with George but uses him as a conduit to experiencing the finer things in life. That is, of course, until Joseph Asegai (Ivan Dixon), arrives from Nigeria to study at the same medical school.

When the cheque finally arrives, Lena takes matters into her own hands and puts a deposit down on a property in a white neighbourhood – the best she can afford. The indication is not that this is a poor neighbourhood, but certainly, one that is working class. This leads to a visit from the white neighbourhood’s affable Mark Lindner (played by the ever-unthreatening John Fiedler). His role here is as representative of the Younger’s new community’s Welcoming Committee. It is the cheerful, friendly and chillingly reasonable way he explains the new neighbours’ “reasons” for wanting to buy the Youngers’ property back for an inflated price that shows exactly why this play was needed at this point in the civil rights movement.

The surprising part of this film is that Poitier is not the stand out performer. By this, I don’t mean he turns in anything less than his usual powerhouse performance, but unusually, the rest of the cast are equal to his might.

This is a powerful film that stands the test of time. In 1961, it would have not just resonated with African-American audiences, but blue-collar workers, women and any other social group whose background meant menial work was the best they could do – for whom dreams were dependent upon any kind of financial windfall. Just as the kitchen sink dramas of the 1960s showed the class war in all its dismal, dreary drudgery, Raisin in The Sun does the same for the struggles of black Americans on the verge of standing up for equality. Ironically, although the cast of the film is mainly drawn from the original stage cast, the director was replaced by Canadian Daniel Petrie – Columbia Pictures seemingly not brave enough to entrust a film of import to a director of colour.

Watching it through 21st-century eyes, you can see the same problems affecting different people now – whether they be asylum seekers, kids from deprived communities, or just people who fell through society’s cracks. The problems the Youngers face have not gone away, they have just been spread more evenly amongst people of races, creeds, and backgrounds.

It would be easy to dismiss this as a film about civil rights and racial equality, but that would be to undermine a subtly multi-layered story that covers a multitude of themes – pride, greed, love, hate, family, cultural identity, feminism… there really is a story for everyone in this film.
The cinematography, by Charles Lawton, is solid but does little to destroy the feeling that this is exactly what it is – the filmic adaptation of a stage play. There are a couple of exterior shots at the Youngers’ prospective new house, and of Walter dropping his boss off in the city, nonetheless, Lawton does use camera angles well to capture the claustrophobic nature of their tenement. The 4K restoration on display in this re-issue helps to bring all the characters to life – every scene is as crisp and sharp as the dialogue delivered within.

Unlike its UK contemporaries, this is not a film that evokes the era, it is a film that evokes struggles that the silent majority face every day. If ever a film represented a call to arms for the downtrodden, hardworking majority, then A Raisin In The Sun is it.

A RAISIN IN THE SUN IS OUT NOW FROM THE CRITERION COLLECTION

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