“What happens to a dream deferred?” This question, posed by Langston Hughes in his poem titled “Harlem (Dream Deferred),” is captivatingly answered in the 1961 film adaptation of Lorraine Hansberry’s award-winning play, “A Raisin in the Sun”. As one of the first films featuring an all-Black leading cast, the film-directed by Daniel Petrie, Sr. and starring Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, and Ruby Dee-defies the claustrophobic apartment setting to reflect upon the lives of several members of a Black family daring to dream beyond the limitations of their race.
A “Raisin in the Sun” focuses on the troubled lives of the Younger family. The family’s patriarch has died, leaving a $10,000 insurance policy that each member of the family views as a fulfillment of his or her own dream. Walter Lee Younger (Poitier) is an ambitious yet stifled man whose dreams of making a mark in the world leave him dissatisfied with his life as a chauffeur. Beneatha (Sands) is a college student whose dreams lead to conflict in everything from her choice of major to her dating relationships, and ultimately her discovery of her own cultural identity. Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth (Dee), is presented as an in-between character, whose respect for her mother-in-law and love for her own husband and son leave her divided between her own happiness and the dreams of those she loves. The family’s glue Lena Younger (McNeil), a proud, faith-driven matriarch whose dream of freeing her family from the South Side of Chicago and the racial restraints their apartment presents leads her to dare to put a down payment on a dream house that just happens to be in a segregated White neighborhood.
While the film adaptation of Hansberry’s play removes some character development and dialogue, it nevertheless maintains the raw emotions put on display within the constraints of a cramped two-bedroom apartment housing five people and countless visions of the so-called American Dream. The film itself works as a statement of both the power and danger of dreaming as the labors and seemingly unfulfilled life of the family’s patriarch become condensed into a piece of paper on which the dreams and moral fabric of the Younger family come to balance. In fact, the film is something of a seesaw, rising to high peaks of tension and emotional friction and sinking to the depths of despair and potential moral ruin in the next moment.
The central problem with “A Raisin in the Sun” is the overtly obvious fact that it is a play adapted to film. Many scenes feature exaggerated body movement and over-emoting that translate well on stage but come across as somewhat amateurish and over-the-top. Primary among the ill-adapted performances is the characterization of Beneatha by Sands, whose performance reflects more of Broadway than the silver screen allows. Even Poitier, who manages here to make an unlikable character still a sympathetic one, dips into some stagy technique at moments. Perhaps it is the fault of some unfamiliarity with some of the emotions the characters express; one can barely express him or herself the conglomeration of emotions felt at a moment of total loss, or when faced with racial prejudice. Yet the expression of these emotions on screen work as something of a double-edged sword; they put inexplicable emotions into recognizable motions and reactions, but at the cost of coming across at times as unrealistic or over the top. At the same time, the staginess of some sections of the play force other moments, particularly those with less emotional impact, to seem slow; these moments make the film seem to stretch out to the point of feeling long, despite a run-time of only 128 minutes.
Overall, the film is a success not for its racial or civil rights lessons, but for its overwhelmingly relatable expression of the experience of life. The lives of this play are all touched by overwhelming outside forces, yet all simultaneously hinge on their understanding of themselves as one family, united against the world. As one character expresses, there must be “something wrong in a house-in a world-where all dreams, good or bad, must depend on the death of a man.” As Walter himself expresses, the Younger family “[comes] from a long line of proud people.” Both the film and the movie provide heartwarming representations of a group of proud people daring to dream, no longer willing to have their dreams deferred. Perhaps it is an explosion, but in the end, it is progress.
This film features stellar performances from McNeil and Dee, who both provide fine representations of subtle yet strong women. Though not Poitier’s premiere role, it is one that launched him from the place of supporting role to leading man. Viewers should also watch for an early performance from Louis Gossett, Jr. Despite some flaws, “A Raisin in the Sun” is, overall, a great cinematic success.