A Raisin In The Sun

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson


Columbia-TriStar, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1, languages: English Digital Mono [CC], subtitles: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean, Thai , double side-single layer, 28 chapters, theatrical & bonus trailers, production notes, talent files, rated NR, 128 min., $24.95, street date 2/22/2000.

Studio Line

Directed by Daniel Petrie, Jr. Starring Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Ivan Dixon, John Fiedler.

A Raisin In The Sun is a groundbreaking drama celebrating the human spirit, featuring an electrifying performance by Academy Award winner Sidney Poitier (Best Actor, Lilies of the Field, 1963).

The Younger family, frustrated with living in their crowded Chicago apartment, sees the arrival of a $10,000 insurance check as the answers to their prayers. Matriarch Lena Younger (Caudia McNeil) promptly puts down a payment on a house in an all-white suburban neighborhood. But the family is divided when Lena entrusts the balance of the money to her mercurial son Walter Lee (Poitier), against the wishes of her daughter (Diana Sands) and daughter in law (Ruby Dee). It takes the strength and integrity of this African-American family to battle against generations of prejudice to try to achieve their piece of the American Dream.

Picture/Sound/Extras (B-/B-/D)

Adapted from the play of the same, A Raisin In the Sun doesn't stray far from its heritage. For all the cinematic creativity on display here, they might as well have just filmed it on stage; from the sets to the performances, there's little here to distinguish it from the original play.

Some folks might regard that as positive, since it seems the filmmakers remained true to the project's original intentions, but I find it problematic. What's the point of making a movie based on a play if the movie simply replicates the stage performance? The two are completely different media and have their own strengths and weaknesses; ARITS does almost nothing to take advantage of the extra possibilities provided by film.

The vast majority of the movie takes place in one room of an apartment occupied by Walter Lee Younger (Sidney Poitier) and his extended family; the latter includes his wife Ruth (Ruby Dee), son Travis (Stephen Perry - no, not the singer from Journey), mother Lena (Claudia McNeil), and sister Beneatha (Diana Sands). (I, for one, would have liked an explanation of Beneatha's name; considering the conventionality of the other character's names, "Beneatha" stands out and deserves mention.)

ARITS takes place as the civil rights movement roiled in 1961, and while our characters don't involve themselves directly in these actions - though it seems Beneatha does some of that, we don't hear about it directly - the film's emphasis squarely centers on the plight of the then-modern day black family. Actually, much of the movie's focus could just as easily apply to a working class white family; they suffer from a lack of money and aspire to greater things. Walter Lee wants to go in with some friends and open a liquor store, while Beneatha studies to become a doctor. Into this picture comes a check for $10,000 that Lena will soon get, apparently from life insurance held by her late husband. (His death isn't discussed in detail, but I'd assume it's fairly recent. We also don't discover if the patriarch lived with his wife, son, daughter, daughter-in-law and grandson; though it's made clear he and Lena were there for many years, I wasn't so sure Walter Lee, et al., were there with them for a long time, though I think that was the case.)

Anyway, Walter Lee desperately wants Lena to cut him in on the check so he can invest in the store, but she resists this notion since she doesn't believe a God-fearing woman should have any part of a booze barn. She wants to use the money for Beneatha's education and to buy a house so the family can get out of that tiny apartment. The role the money eventually plays actually appears more tangential than you'd think, although its usage does affect the movie's final act when Lena purchases a house in a white neighborhood.

That's the part that really gets into the race relations aspect of the movie, since - not surprisingly - the black family isn't welcomed with open arms. Actually, we never see what happens to them when they move there, but we find out that their future neighbors definitely don't want them to arrive. This part of the movie is handled pretty deftly and with more subtlety than I'd expect; John Fiedler - known mainly from his years on The Bob Newhart Show and also as the voice of Piglet - plays the head of the neighborhood association who tries to quietly convince them it's in everyone's best interest for the family to live elsewhere. His meekly ingratiating performance reminds viewers that the racism doesn't always come from violent rednecks; an even more disturbing sort stems from those who talk the talk of racial equality but won't walk the walk.

Although ARITS makes some of its points well, I must admit that I ultimately didn't care much for the film. Granted, some of this may come from the dated quality of the material; the movie's worn decently well but it still seems very strongly to be a part of its times. While clearly many of the same concerns continue to trouble black families, the whole production screams "early 1960s" and suffers from that tone.

However, that's not the movie's main problem. Its central fault is the essentially staged quality of the production. As I mentioned, this piece looks and sounds and moves just like a play; the amount of adaptation made for the cinematic medium appears minimal. That's why we're stuck in that one apartment for about 95 percent of the picture. This actually could have been a strength, since it could have accentuated the claustrophobia of the family's circumstances; we hear frequently how hard it is for them to move up in the world, and the physical ennui could have reinforced that. In that case, the ending of the film - when we see the family at their new house - could have appeared liberating and have shown real growth and release. Unfortunately, we see just enough of the outside world prior to that scene for this possibility to disappear. The filmmakers needed to either balance out the apartment scenes with more shots of outside life or they should have eliminated them altogether; this compromise does not work.

The movie's stage heritage also shines through in a negative way due to the actor's performances. We see some very theatrical work here, especially from Poitier. I like and respect Poitier, but he completely fails to modulate his acting to tone things down for the screen. On stage, actors need that kind of "bigger than life" emphasis since the audience is relatively distant from them. On screen, however, things are much more intimate, and small gestures become more easily conveyed. Actors need to restrain themselves or their work ends up seeming much too broad and emotive. That problem affects virtually all of the actors - the film uses what appears to be most of the Broadway cast - but I found Poitier's work to seem the most extreme in this regard. In contrast, Dee and McNeil probably do the best job of adapting their roles.

One cast footnote: keep an eye out for a young Louis Gossett, Jr. as Beneatha's would-be suitor George. I didn't know Gossett was in the film until I watched the credits and I didn't even recognize him; it caught me completely by surprise when I saw his name.

A Raisin In the Sun appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen version on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen edition was viewed for this review. Although it contains some flaws, ARITS looks quite good for such an old film.

Sharpness seems acceptable though mildly soft throughout much of the film; it's not distractingly so, but I thought it appeared less crisp than it could. Moiré effects occur rarely, most notably in Lena's spotted dress and in what appears to be a humidifier that can often be seen in the kitchen; that latter poses the most significant examples of shimmering.

The print itself looked exceptionally clean. I noted some mild grain from time to time and minor speckling on rare occasions, but that was about it; the film seems in great shape for a nearly 40-year-old movie. Black levels appeared decent though slightly gray, and shadow detail was always fine. ARITS doesn't look great, but I found its image to offer a very pleasant surprise.

Also relatively strong is the film's monaural audio. All I ask of an old mono soundtrack is that it sound clear and crisp, and ARITS definitely lives up to that request. Dialogue seems especially warm and natural, much more so than I usually hear in films of this vintage. It always remained easily intelligible, incredibly important in such a dialogue-intensive movie. Effects and music were not in the forefront of the mix, and they sounded somewhat thin, but they seemed perfectly adequate for the material. All in all, I thought the audio seemed very satisfactory.

Less positive is the smattering of supplemental features. We get inadequate talent files for Poitier, Dee, Gossett and director Daniel Petrie plus trailers for ARITS and three other Poitier films (To Sir, With Love, Brother John and Buck and the Preacher). If you can find a group of trailers on one DVD that are more dated than these four, I'd like to see them; each and every one of them is clearly a product of its time period and none have aged well. Finally, the DVD's booklet features two pages of brief but interesting production notes.

While A Raisin In the Sun certainly seems to be a very competent piece of work and offers a fairly deft and still-valid portrayal of a working class black family, I can't call it a good film because its theatrical roots still show so prominently. This isn't a movie, it's a photographed play, and the end result suffers from that fact, especially since some of the actors didn't modulate their performances for the differences between stage and screen. The DVD offers pretty good picture and sound, though it doesn't supply many supplements. I can't really recommend the movie for purchase, and it's pretty iffy overall, but you might want to try it as a rental.

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