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Edward L Pittman

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Raisin in the Sun: The Original Rules
by Edward L Pittman   
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Last edited: Saturday, March 15, 2008
Posted: Saturday, March 15, 2008

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Recent TV version of Raisin in the Sun not enough to abandon original

A new television version of Raisin in the Sun aired a few weeks ago, starring Phyllica Rashad, Puffy Combs and Sanaa Lathan. I passed on watching it. A few months ago I bought the DVD of the original. I watch it periodically and couldn't imagine anyone playing those roles better.

I've often wondered why Raisin in the Sun is on my A-list. First of all, Sidney Poitier is a great actor. You also can't miss Claudia McNeil, a young Ruby Dee and even Lou Gossett. Made for film by Columbia in 1961 after first appearing on Broadway(1959), Raisin in the Sun is the ultimate struggle movie that invokes family, black identity, and a yearning for the American dream. Watching the movie many years ago, I only saw the charismatic Poitier, his savvy portrayal of an ambitious son who is frustrated and bursting with anger at the system that chokes his dreams. He cheuffers wealthy businesmen while watching them make big deals. He wants to do the same. "Sometimes, when I'm downtown driving that man around," he tells his mother. "We pass them cool, quiet-looking restaurants. I look in. I see these white boys. They're sitting, talking about deals worth millions of dollars and they look no older than me." Such passion drives Poitier's character, Walter Lee, to pursue his dreams by unwisely investing a portion his father's $10,000 insurance payment into a dubious liquor store scheme hatched by untrustworthy associates.

Lorraine Hansberry's classic has lasted through time. Among other things, Raisin in the Sun is a treatise on the black struggle. She situates Walter Lee in the middle of a story about black dreams and is careful to dot the landscape with other themes of that time. Beneatha, the younger sister, carries the feminist and black nationalist banner. She is defiant and intent on becoming a doctor against the sexist pollution of that time Mother is the strength and link to her husband's legacy and generations of black families who struggled through Jim Crow and northern racism. When she questions Walter about his misguided dream, he tries to explain that life has always been about money and black people just didn't know it. "Something's changed. You're something new, boy," she explains. "In my time, we was worried about not being lynched and getting North and staying alive and still have dignity too. Now you and Beneatha talk about things we ain't never thought about. You ain't satisfied or proud of nothing we done. I mean, that you had a home and that we kept you out of trouble and that you don't have to ride on the back of nobody's streetcar. You're my children, but how different we've become."
One might say she is old-fashioned, yet she seeks a foundation on something stronger--more lasting than money.

In another classic scene, Walter Lee's ability to lead the family is challenged. A realtor comes to offer them a buy-out to not move into the white neighborhood against the association's objection. Walter has been tempted to take the deal, ever the capitalist that he yearns to be. She looks him in the eye and tells him to be the man that his father was and teach his son Travis the way he was taught. Pulling Travis close to him, Walter Lee tells the nervous realtor how he comes from five generations of strong, plain people. He motions to his sister and says that she is going to be a doctor. "This is my son, my son" he continues. "And he makes the sixth generation of my family in this country." And 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."

Hansberry does a lot with her script. She allows Walter Lee to be masculine in his quest for the American dream. She champions feminist ideals into the character, Beneatha. She opens a door for black nationalist thinking through images of Africa while allowing the mother to hold onto traditional values. It's one of the best movies I've seen. In time, maybe I'll watch the newer TV version. For now I'll keep watching the original on DVD.

March 2008

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