Approved. A Raisin in the Sun is a heavy one. While not littered with traditional bad language, the film does feature heavy racial and homophobic language. The protagonist is thoroughly unlikable and the film has the specter of abortion hanging over the film as a whole. Walter is also a serious drinker and does terrible things while he is drinking. It's an important movie, and important stories often have controversial content. Approved.
DIRECTOR: Daniel Petrie
I really thought that I've written about this one before. There's a half-memory peeking out telling me a lie that I've written about A Raisin in the Sun before. I mean, I've been teaching the play for the past six years. I can't believe that, in the past four years, that I haven't shown the Sydney Poitier version of the film. I know that I've watched it to catch up, but that just might have been five years ago. This year, with the BLM movement going on and the death of John Lewis, I thought it would be a good idea to pregame John Lewis's March with A Raisin in the Sun as opposed to simply treating it as a summer assignment.
This is one of those stories that, even if I wasn't teaching it, I would keep coming back to it. Before I taught it, I think I had watched the film a handful of times. There's something hypnotic about the film. I won't deny that Lorraine Hansberry's script coupled with absolutely stellar performances does a lot of the heavy lifting. But this is one of those films, like 12 Angry Men, that never feels like a burden being stuck in one locations. Both were theatrical phenomenons before their adaptation into film. But both stories, because of the perfections of the script, allow us to understand every character at every moment. Each person in this story, despite the fact that it can be argued that Walter Lee Younger is the protagonist, has such a clear goal and intention throughout the story that no moment is really wasted. While it may seem like, at times, that these characters might border on caricature, especially characters like Benetha or Mama, they still seem like real people whom we both empathize with and criticize by virtue of being removed from the situation. Hansberry's story is one that allows us to hold every character in our heart as a member of the family while acknowledging that they are far from perfect people, even the more heroic characters in the group.
The entire story is this scathing look at the American Dream. I realized pretty early on when I started teaching American literature that almost every story I taught was a direct criticism of the American dream. A Raisin in the Sun is this absolute sucker punch to the gut when it comes to its commentary on the film. Just to establish what I'm using as MY definition of the American Dream, it is the notion that any American can pursue his goal and will eventually achieve it, assuming that he or she puts in the work. I'm not here to tell you if the American Dream is real or not. I've been pretty cynical as of late, so I'd rather not spiral down that hole. But Hansberry is in a place in history where she embraces her role as artist during the Civil Rights movement. For her, the American Dream seems to be very real, with a huge caveat. While it should be possible to work and toil to get what one wants, Americans themselves, for the most part, ruin that dream. I mean, I'm having all of my students write a paper on this, so I want to absorb some of the ideas we have been talking about.
It seems like Hansberry believes that dreams are toxic. I wouldn't disagree with that interpretation, given the examples she provides. But not all dreams are toxic. Hansberry seems to comment that America and its structure was built to support dreams, as long as these dreams seem harmonious with the more positive elements of the tenets of America. Mama's dream is perhaps the one most in line with what America was founded under. Instead of focusing on the self, she wants to improve the life of her family. She wants to live in a home of her own. But the joy doesn't come from the selfish idea of property ownership. It comes from the idea that her grandson won't have to sleep on a couch anymore. She invests and sacrifices for this dream, no more so than because of the loss of her husband. Because of the communal element of her dream, her choice makes her a force for good within the story. When people both internally and externally try stripping her of this dream, that's when we feel the most sympathy. After all, the money is hers. She got it from the insurance off of her dead husband. But instead, it's the more toxic elements of capitalism that really start putting a damper on her dreams. Both Walter and Benetha think that there's a certain entitlement to that money, moreso Walter than Benetha. The Clydesdale Park Welcoming Committee sees Mama's presence as a means to soil their American Dream. Really, it is the other Americans who actually ruin the concept of the American Dream.
It's the people who only look after themselves who point out the problems of the American Dream. Walter Lee seems to justify his actions by occasionally referencing what benefits the family will gain from his bar. Lee, like many Americans, depend on the notion of the patriarchy to justify every decision. It kind of makes sense why Walter acts the way he does. As much as I love Mama, she reinforced the idea that, because he is male, he should be depended upon to make the most responsible choices in the household when Ruth is clearly the stronger force in the couple. But Walter keeps pushing for his dream, despite objections. It's odd to think that this is a story that actually frowns upon the idea of the individual pursuing his dream. In a way, I suppose the story is somewhat anti-Transcendentalist, despite the fact that I would probably clump myself in the pro-transcendentalist camp. Some of this comes from the text, but a lot of it comes from Poitier's performance, but there's no real question that Walter is selfish about the bar. While there may be nothing objectively wrong to be an entrepreneur, his desire to open this bar comes out of selfishness. For one part, it feels all very get-rich-quick. He likens the opening of this bar to other people who struck oil with their small businesses. Similarly, it is an ego boost. A guy who humbles himself as a limo driver has put all of his value of success into a bar that doesn't actually exist. For once in his life, he sees the potential of being deigned for some great destiny and it all falls apart. It's not just a bar to Walter. It's the chance for the people in his life to look with him with respect. But we all see that dream for what it is through the eyes of the rest of the people in the apartment. They see a pipe dream before it happens. When Walter is ultimately robbed of his deposit, it feels like the scales of justice striking down the warning of others.
Benetha is this paradoxical character for me. Benetha isn't a character who is so criminally toxic like Walter. Her goal of becoming a doctor in an age that didn't accept Black female doctors is, by all standards, a noble one. But Hansberry makes her dream to become a doctor somewhat silly. It is so interesting that Benetha has this character context that affects her choices. I'm thinking of the countless stories of exploring passions and how it is rewarded, yet Benetha is almost childish in her understanding of these choices. The story introduces Benetha as into exploring her African culture with Joseph Asagai. Because Benetha doesn't have that stick-to-itiveness necessary for success, it really doesn't matter how noble her dream is. We know that she's not fully committed to any cause that comes her way, regardless of degrees of altruism. Perhaps Hansberry is warning about virtue signaling (a phrase I absolutely deplore) because nothing really seems altruistic when Benetha says it. She wants to become a doctor not because she is driven to help people, but because she isn't allowed to. Her desire to return to a Nigerian culture isn't because she sees value in the culture, but because it makes her an intellectual and places her on a greater social tier from her family. As much as I'm a guy who tells people to find something that makes them happy in the world, Benetha's seemingly noble intentions scream selfishness. As a silver lining to those choices, however, her branching out makes her the only character who understands fully the intentions of the Welcoming Committee. Watch Diana Sands's performance in that scene. She completely gets what she is looking at and acts accordingly.
I want to talk about racism a lot. It has been on my mind all summer and something like A Raisin in the Sun seemingly should give me new insight into racism. But A Raisin in the Sun just reminds me that we haven't grown as a culture as much as we'd like to think we have. Mark Lindner from the Welcoming Committee seems like an absolute monster. But I also know that we have complete de facto segregation for our communities. As much as I critique Walter and Benetha's problematic dreams, I also can't begrudge them because they are simply asking for the same opportunities that white people have. We're supposed to be frustrated with Walter's treatment of the family. But I've also been able to live the American Dream without losing my mind. There's a moment where Walter is asked to stop his wife from having an abortion, and he can just say nothing. We're all supposed to throw up our hands, but these characters are constantly on the point of giving up. Yeah, he needs to fight for that child, but his frustration is real. Everyone's frustration in this movie, regardless of personality, is valid.
I adore this movie. It's such a surprise every time I see it. It is this masterpiece of acting coupled with a tight script that has a message.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.