A Raisin in the Sun



Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY -- The first network television movie to be screened at Sundance, "A Raisin in the Sun" never totally transcends its origins on the stage and it's a long way from cutting edge cinema. But those who can relax into the leisurely pace and lush language will be rewarded with an earnest and moving night at the movies. After its late February airing on ABC, film should have a long shelf life in schools and on home video.

Adapted from Lorraine Hansberry's groundbreaking 1959 play and powered by the high-profile cast -- Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan and Audra MacDonald -- from the acclaimed 2004 Broadway revival, "A Raisin in the Sun" is a throwback to an earlier era of theater and race relations. But what's remarkable is that Hansberry's wit and vitality, the work of a 27-year-old playwright, still feels alive and relevant today.

This is American kitchen-sink drama, engaged and socially conscious, where every line has a purpose. It's the story of the Younger family set in the Southside of Chicago in the early 1950s. Hansberry was prescient enough to see that black history was at a turning point in this country and she was able to create a play that captured the changing aspirations of a new generation.

The dream of freedom, the ultimate goal for people like the matriarch of the family Lena Younger (Rashad), has been replaced by the pursuit of the American Dream by her son Walter (Combs). A chauffeur for a rich white family, he feels like he's missing out on his big chance, and he is not going to take it lying down.

While Walter chases his piece of the pie, his sister Beneatha (Sanaa Lathan) represents another strain of the black experience. She feels she can be whatever she wants to be, and that alternately includes an actor, a Nigerian dancer, an artist and a doctor. As her mother puts it, "I've seen butterflies do less flitting." As Beneatha spreads her wings to find herself, Hansberry delivers a touch of feminism before its time.

Hovering over the household is the ghost of Walter's father, and more specifically, his $10,000 life insurance check that is due any day. Walter wants to use the money to buy a bar with his none-to-bright friend Bobo (Bill Nunn), which makes them ripe patsies for another emerging type of black man -- the worldly hustler.

Lena is bitterly opposed to Walter's business venture and uses some of the money to put a down payment on a house in an all-white neighborhood where the family is destined to be unwelcome. What's at stake here is nothing less than the soul and the future of the black people as Hansberry sees it. It's a battleground to be sure and it plays out largely in the two-room Younger apartment.

Director Kenny Leon, who also helmed the show on Broadway, attempts to open up the action, drawing on Paris Qualles' screenplay, which in turn is adapted from a TV version of the original play by Hansberry herself. The staging remains a bit creaky and theatrical and the local saloon or the street life in front of the apartment still seems more like a set than a real place.

But that almost seems beside the point. None of this diminishes the spirit of the play or the cast's commitment to the material, which almost seems palpable. As he did on stage, Leon gets the most out of his actors and with Hansberry's words, that's what carries the film. Rashad beautifully captures the wounded pride and hopes of the older generation, while the rapper and music entrepreneur Combs holds his own in his first major movie role. Balanced between her mother-in-law's idealism and her husband's pragmatism is Walter's wife Ruth, who may be getting the worst of both worlds. MacDonald gives the role a heartbreaking dimension.

Befitting the television production it is, the music by Mervyn Warren is a bit too insistent and visual elements are straightforward without being distinguished. But as old-fashioned as it may be, it's still a provocative, powerful piece of work. In hindsight, one can only watch the Younger family set out for greener (or whiter) pastures and see the turmoil and violence of the '60s just around the corner.

ABC World Premiere Movie Event
A Storyline Entertainment and Bad Boy World Wide Entertainment Group production in association with Sony Pictures Television
Director: Kenny Leon
Writer: Paris Qualles, based on the play by Lorraine Hansberry
Producer: John M. Eckert
Executive producers: Sean Combs, Carl Rumbaugh, Susan Batson, David Binder, Craig Zadan, Neil Meron
Director of cinematography: Ivan Strasburg
Production designer: Karen Bromley
Music: Mervyn Warren
Costumes: Gersha Phillips
Editor: Melissa Kent
Walter Lee Jr.: Sean Combs
Beneatha Younger: Sanaa Lathan
Ruth Younger: Audra McDonald
Lena Younger: Phylicia Rashad
Travis Younger: Justin Martin
Bobo: Bill Nunn
Asagai: David Oyelowo
Willy: Ron Cephas Jones
George: Sean Patrick Thomas
Karl Linder: John Stamos
Running time -- 131 minutes
No MPPA rating