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A RAISIN IN THE SUN

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee, Diana Sands
Director:  Daniel Petrie
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1, Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  Production Notes, Talent Files, Theatrical Trailers
Length:  128 Minutes
Release Date:  February 22, 2000

Film ****

A Raisin in the Sun is a powerfully simple motion pictureÖone of the most dramatic I have ever seen, and one that finds its drama honestly, without a hint of unnecessary melodrama to spoil the spell.  Written by Lorraine Hansberry based on her own successful stage play, this is a film that boasts a superb and insightful script, brought to life by an excellent cast in top form.  It is a tale of dreams and heartaches, of winning and losing, of families that manage to stick it out together through thick and thin, through moments of crisis and joy. 

The characters are all richly drawn.  Walter Lee (Poitier, in an electrifying performance) is a man who sees his life going nowhere.  He has a job as a chauffeur, but views it only as being a simple servant, with no chance for betterment for himself or his family.  He dreams big, but dreams take money.  He longs to be someone big, not only for himself, but so he can someday give his son the things his own father was never able to give him. 

His wife, Ruth (Dee), dreams a little smaller.  She would like to have a house of her own someday, and get out of the little apartment thatís far too small for a family of their size.  The mother and sister share a bedroom, and her little son has to sleep on a couch in the living room.  She sees nothing wrong with what Walter Lee does for a living, and constantly worries that his endless dreaming is only going to bring him more hurt and discontent.

Walter Leeís sister Beneatha (Sands) is a young woman looking for some kind of connection, both to her past and to her future.  She plans on being a doctor, and one can sense from her fierce sense of determination that nothing like lack of funding is going to stand in her way.  She also looks back with great interest to her African heritage, listening to records of the music and wearing the fashions, and even dating a real African man.  Her actions throughout the picture are usually funny and touching simultaneously.

And finally, Lena (McNeil) is the family matriarch.  She is old and tired, but equally wise and strong, and still manages to run her family in a firm but gentle way.  She is one of the most appealing film characters Iíve seen.

The story involves Lena receiving an insurance check for $10,000 from her late husbandís company.  I donít think the exact circumstances of his death are ever addressed; one gets the feeling the man may have simply worked himself to death.  Naturally, such a sum of money offers great possibilities, along with some problems.  It means something different to each family member.  Beneatha sees in it the opportunity for her medical schooling.  Ruth feels it means the chance to finally have a home the family can call their own, where her son can have his own bed and a yard to play in.  Walter Lee sees in the money what he feels is his last chance to make something of himself:  investing in a liquor store with a couple of friends.  Lena herself can see all of these dreams coming true, coupled with the sobering thought of the price of a manís worth:  is $10,000 really the sum of a manís life and accomplishments?

Lena is also a religious woman, who canít see turning her husbandís life blood into a liquor store.  It is a rather cynical enterprise, we see, as one of Walter Leeís friends remarks that the business thrives on weakness.  One may not have money to pay the rent, he muses, but heíll find the money to buy his booze.  Itís not exactly a lifelong dream for Walter Lee, either, but he sees in it a chance to be somebody and be financially independent, and a way to provide good things for his family for the rest of his life without having to be a meager servant for a pittance of pay.

It doesnít seem that his dream is meant to be, however, for many reasons, including the complication of his wifeís new pregnancy.  In a skillfully handled scene between her, Walter Lee and Lena, we learn that Ruth has actually put a down payment on an abortion.  Lena forcefully confronts her son about it.  ďShe is going to destroy your child!Ē she screams.  ďI want to hear you tell her you donít want her to do it!Ē  Walter Lee is so lost and confused at that point, he quietly picks up his coat and walks out.

There is moreÖmuch more to this rich and rewarding story than what Iíve touched upon, but it really needs to be experienced first hand.  What this cast and crew have created is one of the most honest, compelling, and powerful family dramas ever captured on film.  Every moment rings out with feelings of love, longing, frustration, despair, and hope, and touches that part of us that has experienced those emotions at one time or another.  These people are so real that each one of them could be us on the screen, as we identify with the fears and dreams that makes each one such an individual, yet an inseparable part of a greater whole. 

A Raisin in the Sun is simply one of the truly great American films.  It taps directly into your deepest emotions without ever resorting to cheap melodrama to do so.  It finds the part of you that instinctively responds to what these people are going through, and holds on to it for the duration.

Video ****

Columbia Tri Star should be proud.  If thereís a better looking transfer for an older black and white film on DVD, I havenít seen it yet.  Other than the obvious youth of the cast, thereís nothing about this print that would indicate its age.  It is amazingly free of telltale nicks and scars, and images are rendered so pristinely, so sharply, that it looks as new as anything you might see.  If every classic picture could look this good, it would be DVD utopia.

Audio **1/2

The soundtrack is in mono, but even it is lively and dynamic, and free of any distracting noise (which youíll really appreciate during the quietly intense moments). 

Features **

The disc contains a handful of trailers for Sidney Poitier films, along with talent files and production notes.

Summary:

A Raisin in the Sun is deceptively simple filmmaking, creating a picture that explores honestly the tensions within a loving family, and how they go about dealing with their conflicts, both internal and external.  The screenplay is brilliant, the acting is phenomenal, and the overall picture is both powerful and inspiring.  Apart from that, this DVD may become the standard by which all transfers of older films are measured.  Absolutely and unquestionably not a title to be missed.