A Raisin in the Sun, released in 1961, was based on Lorraine Hansberry’s play of the same name which debuted in 1959. Many of the actors featured in the play reprised their roles for the movie, most notably Sidney Poitier who played to role of Walter. The film focuses on a working class black family from the South Side of Chicago, and their struggles regarding a $10,000 life insurance check received by Momma following the passing of her husband. A Raisin in the Sun had a budget of about $1.5 million and was regarded as both a groundbreaking and a controversial film. Considering the time of the films release, an African American centric film could have potentially been a risk, but the movie proved to be quite influential. Selected to the National film registry, A Raisin in the Sun, was considered to be culturally significant for the same reasons that made it potentially controversial. A socially conscious film about an African American family and their struggles set an artistic precedent for films, television shows and stage productions to follow.
The film’s main themes included the universality of family life regardless of race, the inaccessibility of the American Dream, assimilation into cultural norms, the ability to overcome stereotypes, and the existence of latent racism. First, one can recognize that the film was geared attempted to highlight the similarities of all American families; this was implemented by the movie in order to present a white audience with the realization that white and black families faced many similar problems and generational differences. The next major theme was the inaccessibility to the American dream, which occurred for many who were trying to obtain the expected middle class lifestyle of the era. This dream led many U.S. citizens, such as the fictional Walter, to a materialistic obsession, which the movie used to criticize the norms of American consumerism (Lecture Notes). Next, the theme of assimilation was explored through Beneatha, who chose between an assimilated boyfriend and one who was focused on cultural heritage. She chose Joseph, a man who embraced his African roots, indicating her rejection of assimilation. As she acted against the societal pressures of the McCarthy era, Beneatha’s actions sent the message that anyone can go against societal norms (Many are the Crimes). Beneatha also deviates from the stereotypes of wanting to get married and wanting to become a housewife, which showed the viewer that anyone can rise above stereotypical expectations of the time. Lastly, Mr. Lindner’s attempts to maintain neighborhood segregation without appearing outwardly prejudice demonstrated that even though racism was becoming frowned upon, especially in the Northern United States, it still had an influential latent presence (Cold War Civil Rights).
Both the themes and plot of Raisin reinforce many of the ideas raised in class. First, the conflict in the second half of the story results from the practice of housing segregation. As we discussed in class, many suburbs became segregated (by choice or due to housing codes), even in liberal northern cities like Chicago. The exclusion of the Youngers from the suburbs in Raisin is justified by Lindner as an attempt to avoid interracial tensions. He argues that their exclusion is more of an effort to keep peace than to restrict the Youngers in any way. This tactic is similar to those used by the federal government with respect to the civil rights movement during the Cold War. When confronted with foreign pressure to abolish segregation, the government invested much energy into reframing the issue, rather than addressing the racism at the root of the practice. Like Lindner, the government appeared generally uncomfortable with the practices of segregation, but to avoid potential disruptions to the peace, it avoided change for as long as possible. While some of the film’s messages are generally progressive, it also exhibits many stereotypical aspects of 1950s culture. For one, the family has aspirations of establishing comfortable middle-class lives. Momma chooses to use only part of her insurance money to purchase a home, opting for a modest one in a predominantly white suburb. Like many families of the time, she desires practicality rather than opulence. Similarly, Momma sees the home as the primary source of fulfillment, remarking to Walter Lee that, “It’s dangerous when a man goes outside of his house to look for peace.” Walter Lee hopes to establish a traditional family model as well. He frequently expresses embarrassment over the fact that his wife must work to help support the family, and if he were to become financially successful, he insists that she would no longer work. In addition, unlike the prototypical families of the decade, the Youngers live in a multigenerational household consisting of more than a core nuclear family, but this is not by choice. Instead, their frequent complaints about sharing household facilities implies that they would choose alternate living arrangements if they had the financial means.
The class discussion regarding the video clip from Raisin focused on the similar tactics used by both the US government and Mr. Lindner when addressing the racial divide. As one student pointed out, both the government and this character appeared extremely “uncomfortable” with the issue and as Dr. Guarneri noted, both invested much energy in putting a positive spin on a very negative message.
By: Michael Kostalis, Matthew Burger, and Alex Carter
Schrecker, Ellen. Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America. Boston: Little, Brown, 1998. Print.
Dudziak, Mary L. Cold War Civil Rights: Race and the Image of American Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2011. Print.