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A Raisin in the Sun

This enormously powerful 1961 film — adapted for the screen by Lorraine Hansberry from her award-winning 1959 theater production — isn't just one of the best African-American dramas in history, it's one of the best stage plays ever produced on film, no matter what the genre. Starring Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNiel, A Raisin in the Sun chronicles a few days in the life of Chicago's Younger family, who are expecting a $10,000 insurance settlement on the late Mr. Younger's untimely death and struggle over how the small fortune can best be put to use. Like all great drama, Hansberry succeeds with Raisin by presenting her audience with carefully drawn characters forced into almost unceasing conflict, and she couldn't have found a better cast for the job than the one here. Family matriarch Lena Younger (McNiel) represents the older generation of African-Americans — hard-working, deeply religious, and no-nonsense. As part of a generation that moved from the rural American south to the industrialized north during the Great Depression, she knows the value of family and money, and that neither are to be squandered. But her two children are of a different generation, one that sees the opportunities available to blacks in the 1960s. Entrepreneurial son Walter Lee (Poitier), who labors by day as chauffeur for a wealthy white businessman, loathes his position in society and is eager to invest the insurance money with two of his buddies in a new liquor store ("Even if people can't buy food, they'll still buy liquor," one of his friends reasons). However, intellectual daughter Beneatha (Diana Sands) wants to complete her college education and go to medical school. While the goal is laudable, her cerebral take on life (and her atheism) threatens to create a rift between her and her mother. Meanwhile, Walter's wife Ruth (Ruby Dee) is a trapped, pregnant, uneducated woman who cleans kitchens for extra money. Her only goal is stability, but it's impossible to find with an irresponsible, somewhat paranoid husband who sees enemies — black and white — everywhere. It is only when Lena makes a down-payment on a house in an all-white neighborhood, which results in a backlash from the local residents' association, that the Younger clan must decide if they can settle their differences and function as a family unit. A Raisin in the Sun is about as perfect a drama as you can get, and it's enormously faithful to the stage play. While a few scenes take place outside of the family home, the many conflicts play out on just one set, performed like a classic live television broadcast from the '50s. Poitier — the first serious African-American actor to make an impression on the Hollywood establishment and American moviegoers — has a host of great roles to his credit, but he was never better than here, as Raisin offers him a complex, dynamic character to match his inimitable talents. Both Sands and Dee offer distinctive performances, and McNiel is irreplaceable as the family's big-hearted mother, simple in her ways but smarter than anybody else. Directed by Daniel Petrie, includes a supporting performance by a young Louis Gossett Jr. as a dapper college chum of Beneatha's. Columbia TriStar's DVD, part of the excellent "Columbia Classics" series, features an anamorphic widescreen black-and-white print that looks fabulous. The remastered audio is crisp and clear, and even the mono format makes the smoky jazz score sound wonderful. Also includes production notes, trailers, and cast-and-crew bios. Keep case.

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