top of page

Nearly 60 years later, “A Raisin in the Sun” retains its power and relevance

Updated: Aug 13, 2020


Sidney Poitier’s mesmerizing performance as Walter Lee Younger defined his career. He, Ruby Dee and co-stars Claudia McNeil and Diana Sands reprised their Broadway roles for the movie.

(Click an image to scroll the larger versions)


Blu-ray, DVD; 1961; not rated, thematic elements

Best extras: “Resistance and Joy,” an essay by Sarita Cannon, associate professor of English at San Francisco State University, about playwright/screenwriter

Lorraine Hansberry, and “Sweet Lorraine,” James Baldwin’s tribute to his friend.

“WHAT HAPPENS to a dream deferred?” Langston Hughes asked in 1951. “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” Lorraine Hansberry’s response still resonates.

“Resistance and Joy” and “Sweet Lorraine,” the essay and tribute collected by Criterion for the disc’s accompanying booklet, explain why.

The first, by Sarita Cannon, associate professor of English at San Francisco State University, provides context. Hansberry’s 1959 play, the first by an African-American woman to be performed on Broadway, wasn’t just groundbreaking in its multi-dimensional portrait of a contemporary black family, its authenticity brought black audiences to the theater.

“[She] wanted to heighten the focus on the political significance” of the Younger family’s story when she wrote the screenplay, Cannon writes, but Columbia Pictures rejected new scenes that she’d written underscoring the “daily indignities of racial discrimination” and “white paternalism” because white audiences might stay away.

Ruth Younger (Ruby Dee) comforts her son Travis (Stephen Perry).

Claudia McNeil gives a commanding performance as Lena, the matriarch who wants to buy a house with the life-insurance check and get her family out of their Chicago apartment.

Eager to reach a broader audience, Hansberry complied—and was “relieved that the film remained true to the parameters of her play.” 

Cannon’s insightful essay pairs perfectly with “Sweet Lorraine,” James Baldwin’s beautiful, inspiring tribute to Hansberry, written four years her death, in 1965, from pancreatic cancer. She was 35, and her light burned bright.

“My sister and my comrade,” he recalled, “made no bones about asserting that art has a purpose, and that its purpose was action: that it contained the ‘energy which could change things.’”

“A Raisin in the Sun” is the testament.

A $10,000 life-insurance check is the Youngers’ ticket out of their South Side Chicago apartment, but Lena (Claudia McNeil), the matriarch, and Walter Lee (Sidney Poitier), her son, argue about how to spend it: She wants to buy a house, he wants to partner in a liquor store. The generational divide is compounded by the pregnancy of his wife Ruth (Ruby Dee) and aspirations of his sister Beneatha (Diana Sands), who wants to be a doctor.

Lena puts a down payment on a home in a white neighborhood, then entrusts the remaining $6,500 to Walter Lee. Instead of putting it in the bank and some aside for Beneatha’s education, he gives the money to one of his partners, who takes it and runs.

Broken, he’s ready to take a buyout—the homeowners’ association prefers the status quo—but, as Lena puts it, rediscovers his manhood. “I hope you people know what you’re getting into,” the association’s lily-white president says in a barely veiled warning.

Hard to believe some critics thought the film wasn’t particularly cinematic because it looked like a photographed play. That’s why it’s so powerful, and not just because director Daniel Petrie tapped his experience on the sets of live TV dramas to convey the claustrophobia of the Youngers’ apartment: Poitier, McNeil, Dee and Sands reprise their Broadway roles. The performances, especially Poitier’s, which defined his career, are exceptional.

Walter Lee can hardly believe that he’s holding a fortune – a $10,000 life-insurance check.

Diana Sands is Beneatha, the Younger daughter who is studying to be a doctor.

Remastered in 4K from the 35 mm original camera negative, file the print under “exceptional,” too. Cinematographer Charles Lawton Jr. (“3:10 to Yuma,” “Spencer’s Mountain”) used mostly close-ups and midrange shots, and they bring out every detail, from the apartment’s clutter to the pattern on Lena’s dress. The gray scale is broad, contrasts are sharp and blacks are solid. The uncompressed monaural soundtrack leans on the center speaker but leaves room for the heated dialogue and Laurence Rosenthal’s (“Becket”) score.

Rounding out the extras are a 1961 interview with Hansberry, new ones with author Imani Perry (“Looking for Lorraine”) and film scholar Mia Mask, one from 2002 with Petrie, a 2002 episode of “Theater Talk” featuring Dee and husband Ossie Davis and an excerpt from the 1978 documentary, “Black Theatre: The Making of a Movement,” with a new intro by director Woodie King Jr.

Don’t know where to start?

Problem solved: Anywhere is good.

- Craig Shapiro

Ruth and Beneatha take in their new home, in a white neighborhood, for the first time.

John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet in Disney’s “Winnie the Pooh” cartoons, plays the president of the homeowners’ association.

"This is my son, and he makes the sixth generation, the sixth generation of my family in this country. And we have, we have all thought about your offer. And we've decided to move into our house, because my father, he earned it brick by brick."



bottom of page