Saturday 29 August 2015

Movie Review: A Raisin In The Sun (1961)

An emotive drama about about race and class in America, A Raisin In The Sun only aims for the high notes. Staginess and an overabundance of overcharged moments hamper the film experience.

In a cramped urban apartment, the proud matriarch of a black family Lena Younger (Claudia McNeil) is trying to hold her household together. Her son Walter Lee (Sidney Poitier) is dissatisfied with his job as a chauffeur and dreams of going into the liquor store business. His wife Ruth (Ruby Dee) struggles with the family's tight finances and suffers from her husband's anger and unease. The couple also clash over the parenting of their young son Travis, who has to sleep on the sofa because the apartment is too small to accommodate the family. Meanwhile Walter Lee's younger sister Beneatha (Diana Sands) is striving to become a doctor, although her brother scoffs at her ambition, which he views as unrealistic. 

Following the recent death of her husband, Lena is about to receive a $10,000 insurance cheque. This heightens the tensions in the household. Lena wants to use the money for a bigger house, Walter Lee wants to risk the money on his liquor store business idea, and Beneatha's education is another deserving cause. Beneatha is also taking a great interest in her African heritage and culture, inspired by fellow student Joseph Asagai (Ivan Dixon), while she has another suitor in the form of George (a young Louis Gossett). With emotions reaching a boiling point, Lena has a key decision to make, and Ruth drops a new surprise on the family.

Not as much an adaptation of the Lorraine Hansberry play as a film capture of stage events, A Raisin In The Sun is directed by Daniel Petrie almost entirely in the confines of one room. With the characters and dialogue routinely over-agitated, almost every scene escalates to a heated dispute about race, ambition, God, heritage or money. The in-you-face level of intensity may work well on stage, but on the screen the absence of even a modicum of circumspection in tight quarters is at first tiresome and ultimately just strangles the breath out of the drama.

The issues tackled by the film are worthwhile and never less than engaging, revealing the spectrum of social pressures faced by a working class Black family not far removed from an oppressive past. The generational rift between Lena and Beneatha is an emerging stress point, a daughter veering into social and cultural interests deemed unthinkable by her traditional mother. For Lena the mere fact that the family has a roof of their own over their heads and can work with dignity to put food on the table is a great triumph. Beneatha wants a lot more, and now with a new decade beckoning and the influence of new friends like Asagai, she has the intellectual freedom to question fundamental assumptions while celebrating her African heritage in ways her mother could not dream of.

Walter Lee is a powder keg in the process of exploding. Disrespectful to both his wife and his mother, he is looking for a shortcut to wealth, and is obsessed by a get-rich-quick scheme that could jeopardize all that Lena has ever achieved for her family. The claustrophobia of the apartment is closing in on Walter Lee and mocking his life, which he views as a predetermined prison. He may now get paid to work for a rich white man, but he wants much more, and unlike his sister, he is unwilling to create the opportunity through self-betterment.

Most of the Broadway cast reprised their roles for the screen, and the performances are therefore not far from what would have been witnessed on the stage. The commitment is evident, but Petrie is satisfied with a room where everyone is over the top, filled with passion, and defaulting to profound moments and keynote statements. A Raisin In The Sun has plenty to say, and it's all in UPPERCASE.

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