Dreams Deferred: Criterion Releases A RAISIN IN THE SUN

The BluRay package serves as a memorial to the play’s scribe, Lorraine Hansberry.

Lorraine Hansberry based her award-winning play A Raisin in the Sun on her life experience, growing up in a black family who were faced with legal challenges and violence after her father purchased a house in a predominantly white neighborhood. Her work centers around a Chicago family whose matriarch puts a down payment on a house in a similar suburb, using life insurance money after her husband’s death. Hansberry employs themes of structural racism, cultural identity, masculinity, and generational differences in her storytelling.

Her play was such a groundbreaking hit that Columbia Studios made her a deal, turning the theatrical work into a film and employing Hansberry as the screenwriter. Among the special features included with the recent Criterion release of the 1961 film, scholar Mia Mask speaks of the censorship Hansberry faced from the studio. Vernacular was removed from her script, her hopes for branching out and showing the family out in the city were dismissed, and her vision for the screen adaptation was thus limited by the studio.

The result is a movie which thrusts the viewer into the claustrophobic family apartment with little reprieve. Starring most of the original Broadway cast, along with Louis Gossett Jr. making his cinematic debut, the film keeps a theatrical staging. Director Daniel Petrie uses tight framing of shots and the performance style even veers towards melodrama at a pivotal point. This is to say that even with a stark performance from Sidney Poitier as Walter Lee Younger, Jr. and a trio of dynamo actresses — Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil and Diana Sands — taking on stereotype-defying roles, A Raisin in the Sun isn’t allowed to breathe and move beyond the conventions of its production style.

Thankfully, Criterion assembled a package which adds further dimension and layers to the movie. Scholars assert Hansberry’s cultural importance as an activist and artist (the first black female playwright to open a play on Broadway) and the historical implications of her work. We’re able to hear her own words about her life and career. Criterion provides an embarrassment of riches in this A Raisin in the Sun BluRay, likely to please fans of Hansberry, Poitier, and mid-century filmmaking.

The BluRay package now available from Criterion includes oodles of special features, such as:

  • a 1961 audio interview (illustrated) with Lorraine Hansberry
  • a profile of Hansberry and her seminal work by author/biographer Imani Perry
  • interview with Poitier biographer Mia Mask about the actor, his role as Walter, and the problems Hansberry faced during the film’s production
  • a 2002 interview with the movie’s director, Daniel Petrie
  • a 2002 episode with Theatre Talk with the greats Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis
  • a booklet with James Baldwin’s memorial essay to the writer, “Sweet Lorraine”
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