Of Dreams Deferred

A Raisin in the Sun is the finest film based on a stage play that I have seen since I watched A Streetcar Named Desire a few years ago. Raisin was released in 1961, two years after it opened on Broadway, and ten years after Streetcar. It stars its original Broadway cast, with Sidney Poitier in the lead.

The Youngers have never had much beyond a small apartment and steady work as household staff for rich whites. Until now. Following the death of her husband, family matriarch Lena (Claudia McNeil) has a fat $10,000 insurance check coming to her in the mail, and everyone seems to have big plans for it.

Lena’s daughter Beneatha (Diana Sands), an eternal and somewhat flighty student, dreams of becoming a doctor. Daughter-in-law Ruth (Ruby Dee) thinks Lena should use the money on herself, to take a much-deserved break. And Lena’s hot-blooded son, Walter Lee (Poitier), sees a chance to leave his soul-crushing chauffeur job behind him and set himself up in his own business: a liquor store.

For Walter Lee, this is his chance to finally win some personal dignity, in his own eyes and in the eyes of his young son, Travis, but his wife and sister know better than to count on him. Lena shocks them all when she lays down a third of the money down on a house in an all-white neighborhood and gives the rest to Walter Lee. Will he rise to meet the immense responsibility, or sink all of their hopes with his rash impulsiveness?

All of this plays out amidst some intense and powerful human drama, backed by solid performances all around, and thanks in no small part to Poitier’s immense skill. Poitier was undoubtedly one of the most talented actors of the 1950s and ’60s, a true class act. He is at the top of his game here, two years after his first Oscar nomination and two years before his first (and only) Oscar win. Poitier’s Walter Lee is a volatile force, a pleasure to watch. By turns sympathetic and pathetic, he rages and grits out his lines . . . It is a riveting spectacle.

The movie is perhaps slightly limited in its vision. There is never any doubt that this is based on a work written for the stage. 95% of the action takes place inside the Younger apartment, and the camera only ventures outdoors twice. Then again, I don’t know that there is anything wrong with staying faithful to these limitations. It certainly communicates a feeling of claustrophobia and entrapment to the Younger’s surroundings. They can’t get out of the apartment, and neither can we.

The title comes from “Harlem,” a poem by Langston Hughes. The poem begins . . . Well, actually, I may as well quote the whole thing:

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Maybe deferred dreams do dry up if left alone, but seeing them on the brink of resolution for even a short time is much more likely to produce an explosion, as we see here. Playwright Lorraine Hansberry and director Daniel Petrie show us a group of people struggling within a very specific context, but in doing so they open up a window on something universally human: the ability of our dreams to either empower or destroy us.

~ by Jared on August 9, 2007.

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