Friday, May 05, 2006

A Raisin in the Sun


Dir: Daniel Petrie (Sybil; Six Pack)

Obviously one of the best adaptations of a play to the screen. A Raisin in the Sun is a pioneering and essential document of the black American experience, a challenging and sophisticated examination of the modern challenges to the civil rights movement, and an example of perhaps the finest ensemble acting ever filmed. Every single element of the film is laudatory.

Sidney Poitier is Walter, an ambitious man living with his wife, son, sister and mother is a cramped New York tenemant. He has a business scheme and yearns for the life insurance money from his recently widowed mother. The utter desperation of all involved and the subtle power dynamics between the members of the family, all of whom see the money as their salvation in one way or another, create a uniform tension throughout.

Poitier borders on over acting with his wild Walter, shifting moods on a dime and emitting so much pent up anger and frustration that you are sure he is going to burst through a wall. As it is, Poitier finds just the right level of uncontrolled rage, a performance fascinating and uncomfortable to watch. His sister, college educated and experimenting with different reclamations of identity, is brilliantly played as well by Diana Sands, full of wide eyed optimism but also harsh judgment of those who are not as "enlightened" as she. Ruby Dee is the wife, Ruth, who has lost her emasculated husband and despairs over the legacy for her children, quiet and full of total depression.

But the star of the show, the truly illuminating performance, is Claudia McNeil as the family's matriarch. Her character is compelling, crushed by the first stuggles for justice after the end of slavery, yet desperate for her children to live a better life. She straddles the complacency of accomplishment with the recognition that her children have their own struggles to fight. Conservative, religious, and so strong, she embodies the passing of the torch for civil rights leadership to a new generation, for whom a claustrophobic apartment and the freedom to work yourself to death for a little money is not enough. The next step, the step that her children must take, is to develop their personhood. Mama's slow recognition of this, and her development as a character, is miraculous.

The film has so much to say about racism, presenting a more nuanced and politically savvy practice of exclusion and hatred, one that arrives at the door with a smile. The decision the family must make is very difficult, realistic, and thought provoking. All of the characters embody different directions for the future of civil rights, and all come together at the end for a persuasive picture of what we should do next. It is political theater at its best; it is correct and respects the audience enough to avoid preaching.

This film and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" work together as the most important dramatic films dealing with civil right in the 60's. The latter welcomes in a softly racist audience to critique their prejudices. "A Raisin in the Sun" grabs that audience by the throat and forces it to experience life at the bottom of society, to feel their anguish. It is a brilliant play, and a brilliant film.