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Senior HTF Member
May 22, 1999
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“It’s dangerous, son, when a man goes outside of his home to look for peace.” So says Mama (Claudia McNeil) in the 1961 film version of Lorraine Hansberry’s play. That quaint sentiment gives a distinctive nostalgic flavor to A Raisin In the Sun, which is otherwise un-fortunately outdated. Modern teenagers would find little to identify with regarding the morals of the African-American Younger family, circa the 1960's.

Well, wait. The character they would likely empathize with is that of Walter Younger, an arrogant, narcissistic young husband and father who, upon learning his mother has received a $10,000. insurance check following the death of his father, does everything he can to persuade her to give him the cash for a business venture, ignoring both her and his sister’s needs. He is full of rage most of the way through the film, becoming pleasant to his family only when it seems as though he is going to have the money he wants.

That Walter’s values finally do make a turn-around at the film’s end, when he turns down a man representing the neighborhood where his mother has just purchased a house, offering them a profit not to move there, he belatedly shows a good side. But I don’t know if young viewers today would buy that - our society may just have become too cynical.

The issue of race specifically manifests itself only in Mr. Lindner’s “generous” offer to pay the Youngers to stay out of his neighborhood, which has been strictly white. Otherwise, the issue is poverty, and this family could have been Hispanic, Italian, or white. Walter’s dream of having enough money to invest in a business is that of millions of young males of all races.

What does seem unusual in this day and age is the depiction of an extended family living in close quarters in Chicago. Until the patriarch of the family passed away, which set in motion the moral dilemmas of the plot, there was Walter Younger, his wife and son, his sister, and his parents, all together in the same apartment. This kind of living situation certainly still exists, but most viewers today would not find it familiar, unlike those of 1961, when the film was released.

For all this, the film has moments of brilliance and is well acted by all, particularly Claudia McNeil as the Ma Joad-like Mama. I am a big fan of black and white, and this film felt comfortable in monochrome, whereas color would have prettied-up the sets and clothes and removed a layer of grimness. Of course, were I watching the stage play from which this film was (apparently) faithfully adapted, there would be color. But film, because of its changing camera angles and editing and punctuating close-ups, produces a false reality that stage can not, and the choice of whether to use color or black and white film stock – often an economic but sometimes a purely aesthetic consideration – can make a huge difference to tone and emotional impact. Considering that this is a single-set-bound (play and) film, the choreography of the actors is handled well and the pace, even at a full two hours, is not sluggish.

This was the first play written by an African-American to be produced on Broadway (in 1959), and had virtually the same cast as the Columbia movie release two years later. The author’s father had himself purchased a home in an all-white neighborhood, and fought (and won) a legal battle against those who tried to keep his family from moving in. Hansberry’s play was, therefore, not entirely fictitious. It ran for nearly two years, and has been revived recently both on stage and for television. All in all, a welcome additional to my film collection.

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