Classic Movie Review: A Raisin in the Sun (1961)

Title: A Raisin in the Sun
Release Date: May 29, 1961
Director: Daniel Petrie
Production Company: Columbia Pictures

The Younger family share a small apartment on Chicago’s South Side that provides the setting for most of this film that explores the tensions within this family and the effects of institutional racism on them.  The central conflict of the story is how to spend a $10,000 life insurance payment.  The elderly mother and grandmother, Lena (Claudia McNeil), wants to fulfill her late husband’s dream of buying a 3-bedroom house with a yard.  Her daughter-in-law, Ruth (Ruby Dee), shares this dream, especially since she’s learned that she’s pregnant with a second child. Lena’s son Walter Lee (Sidney Poitier) has a different dream of purchasing a liquor store with two colleagues in hopes of earning the family’s way into prosperity.  Lena’s daughter Beneatha (Diana Sands) is attending medical school and hopes to become a doctor.

The majority of the movie takes place in the cramped two-bedroom apartment shared by five people, which would be challenging in the best of times. The movie takes advantage of the sense of confinement to highlight the family’s struggles.  A Raisin in the Sun is adapted from a play of the same name by Lorraine Hansberry and many of the actors from the 1959 Broadway production return for the film, and the movie has a theatrical feel to it.  I particularly like the opening scene in which the youngest member of the family, Travis (Stephen Perry), reluctantly wakes up for school and the family (and their neighbors) compete to use the single bathroom.  It feels very relatable.

In addition to the family’s interior conflict, greater social issues are shown to affect the family.  Beaneatha grows a relationship with a classmate from Nigeria, Joseph Asagai (Ivan Dixon), who helps her connect with her African heritage.  Joseph is contrasted with George Murchison (Louis Gossett, Jr.), Beneatha’s suitor whose is prosperous and denies his African roots and the effects of racism.  Meanwhile, when Mama purchases her dream house, a representative of the all-white neighborhood attempts to buy the house from the Youngers to prevent racial integration.  This character is played by John Fiedler, who sounds very familiar because he is also the voice of Piglet in the Winnie the Pooh movies, which is very disconcerting.

A Raisin in the Sun veers into melodrama at times, but it features terrific acting performances by all its leads.  It is also significant for featuring an almost all-Black cast (except Fiedler) and screenwriter in 1961. I do wonder what the movie would be like with a Black director like the original play was directed by Lloyd Richards.  I was surprised that Daniel Petrie would go on to direct Fort Apache, The Bronx, a notorious movie that depicts white cops fighting against “savage” Black and Puerto Rican New Yorkers.


Rating: ***1/2