Lately I’ve been noticing that the ‘American dream’ just ain’t what it used to be. Or at least it’s not what I was brought up to believe in anyway. A long time ago, we used to be a land of opportunity. A place where if a person worked hard and lived well they would be able to build a better life for themselves and for their families. And I was always taught that the best thing about America is that all Americans were equal, each one of us could be anything and our reach in life was only limited by what we could dream. It’s a nice ideal, and something I do hope we get to some day. But the cold fact is that there have always been those left just outside the boundaries of this dream. A Raisin in the Sun tells the story of one such family fighting with everything that they have to better their lives.Released in 1961 and set “somewhere between world war II and the present” (the author’s words) the story revolves around the changes that are taking place within the Younger family. The father of the family has died, leaving behind a ten thousand dollar insurance policy. The money causes a crisis of changing morals for Lena Younger and her two grown children. Walter Lee, the eldest, sees the money as a ticket out of the lower-middle class existence that the family is stuck in. He wants to take the money and invest it in a liquor store. This plan meets with the disapproval of his mother who doesn’t want her husband’s memory invested that way.
Lena’s daughter Benetha is a product of the beginnings of the civil rights movement; she has become very interested in reclaiming the family’s African heritage. She needs at least some of the money to realize her dream of becoming the first professional in the family; she has her sights set on becoming a doctor. These three share a two-bedroom apartment with Walter Lee’s wife and his little boy. Lena dreams of putting her money into a house, primarily so her grandson can have a back yard to play in and she can get a little garden growing.
The script was written by Lorraine Hansberry based on her own play, one of the classics of American literature. As a film it comes off very well, although, there are times when the director seems to give up on the idea of camera movement completely. Other times the camera work is dynamic and telling.
The real gold here is in the script and the performances, all of the characters are strong and well drawn out. The cast is flawless each one of them (with the exception of the little boy, who’s part is limited) communicate things with a look or gesture that many modern performers don’t seem to be able to. There are times when the melodrama can feel like a bit much, but you have to make allowances for the style of filmmaking, and from the fact that the playwright adapted her own work. There are conventions on stage that don’t translate into film, and I think that is why some of the more ‘theatrical’ moments come off a bit wonky. This is a minor thing and does not distract at all from the power of the whole, but to modern eyes especially it will seem overdone at times.More than anything else, A Raisin in the Sun is a story about people who will not give up their dignity. Even in the face of a world that they didn’t build that tries to take it away.
It is a raw, stunning piece of work that is justly regarded as one of the classics of American film.