Sean Combs turned what should have been a vanity project, starring in a Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, into a theatrical event. Combs and company performed similar magic earlier this year with the televised version of the hit revival.
The hip hop mogul can act, and as executive producer he made sure Hansberry’s iconic play received the lush treatment it deserves despite the small screen.ABC’s A Raisin in the Sun shows Hansberry’s words have lost little of their impact. Combs may be the biggest star here, but it’s Phylicia Rashad’s performance as the family’s matriarch that soars beyond her peers.
A Raisin in the Sun follows the Younger family, an extended African-American clan living from paycheck to proverbial paycheck on Chicago’s South Side circa the 1950s. But a financial windfall is about to change their lives. An insurance check for $10,000 is due any day, but every member of the Younger family has his or her own plans for the money.
Brash Walter Lee (Combs) wants to invest the money in a liquor store scheme cooked up by two associates, while Beneatha (Sanaa Lathan) could use the money for medical school. But Lena (Rashad), the head of the family, has final say over the check.
The money comes from an insurance policy attached to her late husband. She has no plans on taking any extravagant vacation, mind you. She only wants the money to restore peace to her squabbling family. Living together under one crumbling roof has driven them apart, and some of the division may never heal. The check may be the last peace-keeping measure left to hold her loved ones together. But even the good news comes with a dark lining, and the choices each character makes have a profound impact on the entire family.
Few productions could handle all the melodrama packed into A Raisin in the Sun without buckling, if not collapsing outright. But miraculously the crush of story lines come together in near perfect harmony. The film’s 131-minute running time may seem unnecessary on paper, but just try to find a dead spot in the narrative.
The cast can surely take a collective bow over that balancing act. Combs is the big surprise here, rendering Walter Lee as both a loving father and someone who has played by the rules long enough. He has a harder time disappearing behind his character than his cast mates, but he more than holds his own during the telefilm’s meatiest scenes.
McDonald often does her best work in the background, when the camera finds her face crushed by the family’s latest disappointment. Her character’s relationship with Walter Lee is a complicated one that can’t be summed up in any one scene.
But when Rashad is delivering wisdom earned from decades of hard living, it’s impossible to look at anyone else. Her coiled power, and presence, is accomplished without a raised voice or clenched fist.
Visually, A Raisin in the Sun takes modest measures to open up the original play. But the scenes that matter, the moments that light the emotional fires the film takes great care to ignite, happen within the dilapidated walls of their apartment. Bravo to the set designers for such a stark but memorable presentation. You can see the peeling wallpaper and smell the stench of Lysol as various Youngers scrub the walls and floors.
The era’s racial disparities exist almost like another character, one who never leaves the television frame. Director Kenny Leon rarely overplays the era’s racism, although a throwaway scene of Walter Lee’s employer looks like a moment out of a Masterpiece Theater satire.
John Stamos personifies the era’s active racism, playing a small but crucial role as the neighborhood representative eager to chase the Youngers out of their new home. The actor could have remained buried under his dorky attire, but he manages to radiate a gentle but unassailable evil all while smiling until it hurts.
The DVD’s sole extra, beyond audio commentary by Leon, is a comprehensive look at Hansberry’s play and its impact on popular culture. The playwright died at a young age, but her sister and other family members reminisce about her great work and involvement with the 1961 film version starring Sidney Poitier. Some clips from that film would have helped viewers compare and contrast the two versions, but the segment spends too much time singing Combs’ praises. The filmmakers share how they attempted to bring the story up to date for the modern audience without losing the story’s historical significance. Mission accomplished.