In a 1964 letter to the editor of the New York Times, playwright Lorraine Hansberry wrote about different modes of resistance that she had witnessed within her own family: “I [. . .] remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our house all night with a loaded German luger, doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court.” Hansberry is referring here to the preparations her mother, Nannie Hansberry, made to defend her black family from violence after moving into a primarily white neighborhood in Chicago in 1937, and to the suit against the city’s restrictive housing covenants that her father, Carl Hansberry, with NAACP lawyers, took all the way to a Supreme Court victory in 1940. She demonstrates a keen awareness of the multiple ways in which people of African descent in the United States have fought for their right to live with dignity, calling into question the idea that there is any difference at all between radical and respectable resistance.
Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun and its 1961 film adaptation (for which she also wrote the screenplay) similarly highlight various strategies of African American resistance. Simultaneously fighting overlapping systemic oppressions, the members of the Younger family refuse to defer their dreams (to reference the same Langston Hughes poem from which the play and film take their title), instead affirming their belief in themselves and one another through moments of shared joy, connection, and nurturing. The film version was the second theatrical feature by director Daniel Petrie, a veteran of filmed television plays who treats the material with respectful restraint.
Although Hansberry was born and raised in Chicago, her family’s situation was quite different from the Youngers’. While the Younger family lives paycheck to paycheck in a two-bedroom apartment that lacks a private bathroom, the Hansberrys were a prominent middle-class family, thanks to Carl Hansberry’s involvement in local and national politics and success as a realtor. As Lorraine Hansberry noted, “We were more typical of the bourgeois Negro exemplified by the Murchison family,” referring to the background of one of Beneatha’s suitors in the play, the upwardly mobile and elitist George Murchison. Yet the threat of violence that greets the Youngers when they move to the mostly white neighborhood of Clybourne Park at the end of the narrative was a daily reality for Hansberry growing up. When the Hansberrys moved to the white neighborhood of South Park, they had to hire a bodyguard for protection. In To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Hansberry recalls “being spat at, cursed, and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school.” On one occasion, a white mob gathered at their home and threw a block of concrete through the front window. Like other black people who dared to live outside the overcrowded Black Belt of Chicago, Hansberry’s family faced hostility and violence from white people who opposed racial integration.
The 1959 Broadway premiere of A Raisin in the Sun brought fame to Hansberry—who had previously been active in leftist circles and written for Paul Robeson’s progressive newspaper, Freedom—and black audiences to live theater in unprecedented numbers. Earning raves from white and black reviewers alike, A Raisin in the Sun won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle award for best play of the year. The play also provided a vehicle for several excellent black actors, including Sidney Poitier as Walter Lee, Ruby Dee as Ruth, Claudia McNeil as Lena, and Diana Sands as Beneatha. Nearly all the actors from the Broadway cast appear in the film version.
In adapting her own play for the screen, Hansberry wanted to heighten the focus on the political significance of the Youngers’ story, but she was thwarted in this goal by studio censorship. She wrote several new scenes that underscored the “daily indignities of racial discrimination” and pervasive “white paternalism,” as scholar Judith E. Smith writes in Visions of Belonging: Family Stories, Popular Culture, and Postwar Democracy, 1940–1960, adding that the producer at Columbia Pictures “rejected all these scenes on the grounds that they might be racially provocative and drive away white audiences.” She also got notes requesting fewer “jive” expressions in the script, and that no one except Beneatha, his actual sibling, call Walter Lee “brother,” so as not to confuse those audiences. Furthermore, the threat of violence in the play seems somewhat muted in the film adaptation, an impression that may be due to the addition of a scene in which the Youngers happily visit their new home and encounter no hostile neighbors—a scene that appears to reflect an optimism about the family’s future that is more mitigated in the play.
Nevertheless, Hansberry was eager to reach that broader audience, so she acceded to the studio’s changes and was ultimately “relieved that the film remained true to the parameters of her play,” as Smith writes. Although the film performed decently at the box office, it did not receive the same level of popular and critical acclaim that the play had. Many reviewers found the film to be not particularly cinematic, noting that it looked like a photographed play. That is perhaps only natural given that the film (like the play) takes place almost entirely on one set, the Youngers’ apartment, and deploys mostly close and medium shots, with minimal camera movement—formal elements that emphasize the claustrophobia of the setting.
The crowning achievement of this film version of A Raisin in the Sun is its very fidelity to its theatrical origins: the way it successfully brings to the screen the play’s elucidation of the difficulties that African Americans have contended with for generations, presenting fully realized black characters in a medium that has historically portrayed black people in limited and often demeaning ways. Lena, the matriarch, recalls both the danger that black Americans faced in a country that immediately replaced slavery with legal apartheid and the simultaneous upheaval and opportunity that characterized the Great Migration of southern blacks to northern urban centers in the early decades of the twentieth century. Walter Lee, her son, feels emasculated because of his inability to provide for his wife, Ruth—who works as a domestic for a white family and learns that she is pregnant with her second child near the beginning of the film—and their ten-year-old son, Travis. Beneatha, Walter’s sister, struggles against the double binds of being black and female in a racist, patriarchal society. But the film also demonstrates how the Youngers, and by extension all black Americans, have not only coped with these struggles but also found ways to thrive despite them.
A Raisin in the Sun features several moments of connection that emphasize the importance of black joy as a mode of resistance. One such moment occurs between Walter and Beneatha. Draped in robes that her Nigerian suitor, Asagai, has brought from his homeland, Beneatha dances wildly in the family’s living room to a record featuring “African” drums. Initially mystified by his sister’s performance when he walks into the house, Walter quickly joins her, chanting “Ocomogosiay, flaming spear” and channeling the African warrior within through outlandish gestures. Part of the humor of this scene lies in the Youngers’ ignorance: Walter and Beneatha, like most African Americans at the time, knew little of African people, history, or culture. As bombastic as the scene is, it also makes viscerally apparent the pleasure and release that Walter and Beneatha experience in this moment of playacting. The family tensions are temporarily put aside, and the communion between the siblings demonstrates their fundamental bond.
Another scene of connection, a much more subdued and tender one, occurs near the end of the film, when the family gathers to present gardening tools to Lena. This gift symbolizes not only the importance of nurturing the roots and branches of the family tree but also the fulfillment of the desire for a garden that Lena has previously been able to quench only by tending to a sad houseplant that rarely gets any sunlight in their apartment. Within this moment of celebration, Travis hands her a wide-brimmed hat decorated with fake fruit, the sight of which drives the adults into fits of laughter. Yet Lena nurtures the spirit in which the gift was given, hugging her grandson tightly and telling him that she loves his present. Both of these gifts illustrate the family’s recognition of Lena’s dreams. And the scene’s setting is especially meaningful: the family offers Lena these presents in the backyard of their new home in Clybourne Park, evincing how vital to their survival in a new and hostile environment their fierce love for one another is.
The lead performances in the film are very strong, and the chemistry among the actors unmistakable, a rapport no doubt honed during the run of the stage play. Claudia McNeil’s portrayal of Lena, who reminds us of the physical and emotional cost of the ten-thousand-dollar insurance check, is quietly moving in its simple, stoic nobility. Diana Sands’s characterization of Beneatha, the young, forward-thinking woman who is experimenting with different modes of self-expression, deftly conveys both her dignified determination and her youthful idealism. Ruby Dee’s depiction of Ruth, a wife and mother struggling to support her husband’s dreams without enabling his more destructive behaviors, is nuanced and powerful. And Sidney Poitier’s performance is legendary.
Although Poitier had appeared in several films in the fifties, even earning an Oscar nomination (the first for best actor to go to a black man) for his role in the 1958 film The Defiant Ones, his depiction of the angst-ridden Walter Lee was a turning point in his career. Poitier powerfully embodies Walter Lee’s anger and desperation. Our frustration with Walter Lee through much of the film makes his redemption in the final scene especially poignant. He calls Mr. Lindner, the white representative of the Clybourne Park neighborhood association, to the Youngers’ apartment and asserts that they still plan to move into their house and will not be accepting the man’s “generous offer” to pay them to stay out of the neighborhood. As Lena says, “He found his manhood today.” Some twenty-first-century viewers may chafe at the film’s focus on triumphant masculinity (it also includes Walter’s comment to Beneatha, as the family leaves their apartment for the last time, that he will decide whom she marries), but this also underscores the limited opportunities for asserting black manhood within a racist and materialist patriarchy.
When A Raisin in the Sun premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 1961, foreign audiences could not understand why the Youngers wanted to leave their neighborhood, because the film doesn’t show the dehumanizing conditions of ghetto life. The few scenes that take place outside the South Side apartment (such as Walter chauffeuring his white employer or drinking himself into oblivion at a local bar) tend to highlight the external forces that threaten the Youngers’ dreams, but they do so in ways much subtler than Hansberry originally intended. An important example is the aforementioned scene in which the family takes a cab to Clybourne Park to tour the neighborhood. Hansberry wanted to include shots of the white people who would soon be their neighbors, in order to underline the danger of the move; Columbia Pictures refused to do so. Instead, the scene exudes joy, light, and excitement about the upcoming move, a whitewashing that may contribute to some viewers’ impulse to misconstrue the ending of the film as a purely happy one. As Hansberry said in response to a critic who thought the play devolved into a soap opera, “If he thinks that’s a happy ending, I invite him to live in one of the communities where the Youngers are going!” While their decision to occupy white space is a triumph of sorts, an affirmation of their right to be free of the disease that Beneatha calls “acute ghetto-itis,” a happy future is not guaranteed. They will face challenges in their new neighborhood, challenges that will require courage to overcome.
Despite the fact that Hansberry’s vision was muted by Hollywood’s desire not to alienate white audiences, the film remains politically and artistically significant. Hansberry was one of the first black writers to bring her own work to the screen, and she did so at a time when, as scholar Lisbeth Lipari puts it, “the fundamental structures of political, social, and economic oppression of African Americans were in the foreground of public life for white and black Americans alike.” While some early black filmmakers such as Oscar Micheaux responded to racist depictions of African Americans by telling their own stories, most mainstream films in the first half of the twentieth century that made room for African Americans at all relied on such stock characters as the Sambo, the Savage, the Mammy, and the Jezebel. Hansberry’s creation of an array of complex characters who represent the dreams of working-class, urban, postwar black communities offered a nuanced view of African American life to a mainstream audience. The film’s ending is not unequivocally happy, for the racial and familial tensions will remain after the final frame. But A Raisin in the Sun reminds us that our strategies for resistance must be as varied as the oppressions that threaten to derail our ability to live with joy, courage, and dignity.
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