Movie Review – A Raisin in the Sun

A Raisin in the Sun (1961)
Written by Lorraine Hansberry
Directed by Daniel Petrie

The history of Black people in America is a roller coaster of emotions. That’s being said by someone who can only speak about it from an outside perspective. I’m white, so I know I’ll never fully comprehend what it means to be Black in that nation. I can say that the popular perception of the struggle for Civil Rights is entirely out of whack, at least in the white circles I lived & worked inside of in Tennessee. There’s this penchant to view these things as the “ancient past” when the brutality to hold onto segregation happened during my parents & grandparents’ lifetimes. There’s an anxiety in the white mind that leads to statements like “stop living in the past,” never mind the Southern obsession with the Confederacy, and wanting to cherish its insipid ideology. The telling of the past that doesn’t seek to soothe & fantasize about history is what people bristle at. It’s simply the truth; horrible things happened in the past, and a thread running through reality connects to the present day.

The Younger family lives in a cramped apartment, going about working to survive. They are anticipating an insurance check following the death of the family patriarch. The grandmother Lena (Claudia McNeil), isn’t sure how she wants to spend this money, and the fact that it is only coming due to her husband’s death weighs heavy on her shoulders. Maybe she’ll buy a house for her family, where everyone has room and space to grow. Her son, Walter Lee (Sidney Poitier), thinks investing the sum in opening a liquor store would help bring the family out of their low-income life. Walter’s wife, Ruth (Ruby Dee), agrees with her mother-in-law. Meanwhile, Walter’s sister Beneatha (Diana Sands) wants a piece of the money to pay for her ongoing educational experiments, hopping from one area of study to the next. The family is pushed to the breaking point as they face the harsh realities of being Black in America, finding that just having money doesn’t solve the more significant structural problems.

The film doesn’t try to push beyond its stage play roots with the entire story unfolding in the Younger family’s apartment. However, it works for this narrative because a considerable part of the struggle in the characters is due to not having a space to breathe. They live on top of each other and even have to share a bathroom with the other tenants on their floor. Travis, Walter Lee & Ruth’s son, sleeps on the couch as his grandmother and aunt take up what would have been his room. The film opens with the morning routine as Ruth rushes to get her family into the bathroom before other residents wake up and go to shower or shave. 

That living situation helps inform Walter Lee’s desperation. This is not a man living at the best point in his life but someone who hasn’t given up laboring to provide for his family. He’s clearly mentally strained as a result of the constant grind. He needs a way to stop working as a driver for wealthy white people and have some sort of control over his labor. Running a liquor store sounds tangible enough based on his circumstances, but his god-fearing mother sees it as simply enabling vice in the community when they should work to do the opposite. As part of his plans, Walter tries to get favor from Ruth and Beneatha to pressure his mother into handing the money over. I wouldn’t say his attempts work or that he fully commits to them. He’s harboring so much anger & resentment towards a world that has never given him a fair shake. 

Beneatha acts as a solid foil to Walter. Like her brother, she is ambitious, but her pursuits are academic. When the movie opens, she’s interested in native African culture, specifically Nigeria. We learn this is partially due to her burgeoning relationship with classmate Joseph Asagai, a Nigerian man. Walter would instead marry Beneatha to her other potential suitor George Murchison (Louis Gossett, Jr.), who comes from a decently wealthy family. When George comes over to take Beneatha out on a date, she’s chosen to wear a style of Nigerian dress which he balks at. We also have a scene where Lena struggles pronouncing Joseph’s last name. George has no interest in exploring his ancestral ties to Africa; he’d rather assimilate even further. However, Joseph is proud of being African and doesn’t hide it. 

I think these moments are important because they underline that the African diaspora that resulted in Black American culture is different than the cultures of the varied & diverse African nations. While there are genetic and foundational cultural ties, these are ultimately two distinct groups. During my first five years as an elementary school teacher, I worked in predominantly Black urban schools, and there were often some intense culture clashes between Black children and the children of African immigrants. It makes sense; they have varying levels of privilege within their communities, and the circumstances of how they ended up in the United States are very different. We often see no difference between the two from the white perspective, but there is. I can even remember a regular substitute teacher at one school, a Black woman born & raised in Nashville, talking about how much she disliked Haitian people mainly due to cultural differences. We must understand that the intensity of these clashes is rooted in white supremacy, categorizing & sorting people based on arbitrary external traits.

Walter Lee has assimilated completely, which we see manifest the more anxiety-ridden he becomes. The man is convinced that if he just has money, he will be able to provide for his family and stop being such a cold, spiteful person towards his wife. Unfortunately, this is where the film doesn’t age too well. The themes center on Walter taking on the role of the man of his house, something he has failed to do since his father’s death a few months prior. It’s complicated because he is a terrible husband, father, brother, and son for most of the picture, but the script’s solution is for him to become more decisive and less desperate. That is good, but I don’t see why the three other women in the household couldn’t also be part of finalizing the decisions that affect them. 

A Raisin in the Sun is intertwined with the Black theater tradition of morality plays, very often staged & performed in churches. As a result, there is a thread of patriarchy woven through it. It’s not the worst thing ever, but it stands out, and there are some scenes where Beneatha is dismissed in a way that I don’t think many modern audiences would be on board with. Lena is a spotless saint-like character, and her faith is implied to be a major part of that. Ruth is a character I would argue is exemplary as well, but not in the church way Lena is held up. Ruth considers having an abortion, and it’s discussed as a regular thing people in poverty would do when another mouth to feed would be too much. 

The film’s ultimate message is the exploration of money’s role in creating happiness for people. The cliche “money doesn’t buy happiness” is horribly reductive. Yes, money can create happiness. We are happy & content when we have food, shelter, clothing, safety, etc.; these things are commodities in our world. Of course, there’s an argument that they shouldn’t be something we struggle to attain, but for now, they are. Unfortunately, when conversations arise in the media about what to do about homeless people or how to “fix poverty,” rarely is “giving people money” offered up. That’s the solution, though. Most (not all) homeless people are in that situation because of a lack of money. The literal definition of poverty is to be without money to live comfortably. 

A Raisin in the Sun discusses what we should invest our money in. Lena wants to buy a home for her family to experience a better life. Walter Lee wants the same but through a liquor store. He delivers a manic speech near the movie’s end, where he becomes wholly drowned in predatory thinking, stating that the way of the world is to take what you can from other people. Walter’s worldview at that moment seems to be the dominant ideology in American culture. Those who don’t are labeled as “parasites” and “unproductive,” and crushing people beneath you so you can have a “better life” is just the way things are. While I wouldn’t necessarily gel with Lena’s Christian principles, she is the one in the right here. 

In America in 1961, I can’t imagine there were many pieces of media in the mainstream that shone a spotlight on Black life in the way this film did. These are complex, complicated characters who behave like people. They make mistakes, the family succumbs to their anger, loves each other, and finds ways to resolve the conflict. It’s also a more honest portrait of life than contemporary media, showing people’s life being preoccupied with economic worries rather than the “aspirational” tv & film we get now. It also helped me better frame Tyler Perry’s movies, understanding that what he’s doing is a perversion of the Black Theater tradition, especially regarding Madea. When you compare the similar but more thoughtful character of Lena here, it becomes easy to see why many Black critics & audiences don’t like what Perry is doing.


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