a/perture cinema, the Official Movie Sponsor of The Less Desirables, presents The Less Desirables Movie of the Week, A Raisin in the Sun (1961), starring Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Claudia McNeil.
Per IMDb: “A substantial insurance payment could mean either financial salvation or personal ruin for a poor black family.”
In the Washington Park Subdivision of Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood, Walter Lee (Poitier) and Ruth (Dee) Younger are struggling with living in the city and being poor. Walter is wrestling with himself for being a chauffeur for a rich white man. The fact that their apartment is so small that his son has to sleep on the couch while his mother, Lena (McNeil) and sister, Beneatha (Diana Sands) sleep in the second bedroom doesn’t help. He believes there’s a better life but the women in his life keeps him “down.”
The family is waiting for a life insurance check after the passing of the family patriarch. Walter Lee wants to open a liquor store with his street-wise friends and thinks it’s silly for his sister to want to be a nurse. Walter Lee and Bene both are dreaming away their mother’s money. Bene is trying to evolve to a Godless world and Lena isn’t allowing that to happen. Ruth suddenly takes ill (turns out she’s preggers).
Walter Lee is freaking out about the money. He won’t talk to his mother until she is willing to talk about investing in his liquor store idea. He shuns his wife, everyone out of blind rage over the money; or the lack thereof. And then, Lena drops the baby-bomb on him and he comes down. Ruth tells him that she’s going to abort the baby and he’s thinking that’s not a bad idea. This creates more tension in the already-shaky family dynamic.
A young Louis Gossett, Jr. plays George, a young college student with an affluent family that wants to date Bene but she’s taken by a young Nigerian named Asagai (Ivan Dixon), so she takes to her roots, much to the chagrin of George. Then, Walter Lee starts in on George because of their money and how George is what’s wrong with “colored folks.” Lena comes back and tells the family that she bought a house. Some are happy, Walter Lee isn’t. It doesn’t help that she bought it in a white neighborhood, which she picked mainly because it was the least expensive. This drives Walter Lee to heavier drinking, not going to work and just being the lush at the bar of his choice.
Lena breaks down and gives him the $6500 left after buying the house. The stipulation is that he puts $3000 into Beneatha’s medical schooling. Then Mark Linder (John Fielder), basically the HOA envoy of “special problems.” He comes to talk with Lena about a buy out. It seems that the Clybourne Park homeowners aren’t ready for a family of color to come into their neighborhood. They tell him they’re not interested and they think it’s all funny.
Then, Walter’s friend, Bobo (Joel Fluellen) comes to tell him that the money they were putting in for the liquor store was stolen by Willie, their other “partner-in-crime.” Turns out, it was all the money that Lena had given him; including the $3000 that he was supposed to put aside for Bene. Asagai comes in to talk to Bene and tries to get her to see the whole picture. That whole picture and how Walter Lee handles the situation, you have to watch to find out.
The struggle of the non-privileged, especially those of color is portrayed in its dark, ugly reality in this film. Forgiveness, compassion and how to pull a family together at its absolute lowest point, that’s what this film is about. Sacrifice, hard decisions and living with what you’re given over what you’ve not; this and pride in family. Life is hard. All these themes are resounding loud and clear.
I can’t express enough how amazing the acting in this film was. Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Claudia McNeil, especially are as good in this picture as I’ve ever seen. How in the world it wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award, on any level, is beyond me. In 1961, there was stiff competition for Best Picture (West Side Story, Fanny, The Guns of Navarone, The Hustler, Judgement at Nuremberg), sure, and I’m not sure it could have won, but still, no nomination? Best actor? Maximilian Schell won against Charles Boyer, Paul Newman, Spencer Tracy and Stuart Whitman. But no nomination for Sidney Poitier? I don’t get it. Ruby Dee did win an award for Best Supporting Actress from the National Board Review. Also, Poitier and McNeil were both nominated for Golden Globes that year. Still, a travesty.
To prove my point, Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a rating of 100% Fresh. Meaning 14 of 14 pro critics gave it positive marks. It has an Audience Score of 86%. IMDb rates it at 8.1 stars out of 10. I watched this on DVD from Netflix. It was at one time available on streaming but isn’t currently. Honestly, I had had this disc since October of 2014. I just watched it recently. I wasn’t really interested. I think that’s the beauty of this AFI list, yes it was on that list of 400 nominees for the Top 100 of All Time, it gets me to watch things that I wouldn’t have known I’d missed. That, too, is a travesty. I rate this film 5 stars; that on the story and the acting. And I highly recommend you watch it, any way that you can.
Have you seen it? What did you think? Do you agree with me? What would you like to see/hear me review in the future? Let me know.
Until tomorrow, same blog channel…
“Oh God, please, look down and give me strength!” – Lena Younger