'Raisin' still rich with wit, relevance

Source:Reuters.com Author:James Greenberg Date:03/25/14 Click:

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - The first network television movie to be screened at the Sundance Film Festival, ABC's "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, moving night at the movies. After its airing on ABC, the 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 McDonald -- 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, 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 South Side 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The dream of freedom, the goal for people like the matriarch of the family -- Lena Younger (Rashad) -- has been replaced by the pursuit of the American Dream by her son, Walter (Combs).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 as if he's missing out on his big chance, and he's not going to take it lying down.

While Walter chases his piece of the pie, his sister, Beneatha (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's due any day. Walter wants to use the money to buy a bar with his none-too-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 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. 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. As he did onstage, 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 rapper/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 (McDonald), who might be getting the worst of both worlds. McDonald 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 might be, it's still a provocative 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.

Cast:

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

Director: Kenny Leon; Teleplay: 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 photography: Ivan Strasburg; Production designer: Karen Bromley; Music: Mervyn Warren; Costumes: Gersha Phillips; Editor: Melissa Kent.

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