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‘A Raisin in the Sun’

50th anniversary of groundbreaking movie.

A RAISIN IN THE SUN, Claudia McNeil, Sidney Poitier, 1961

Claudia McNeil and Sidney Poitier in A Raisin in the Sun (1961) — Courtesy Everett Collection

I can't say with total precision what $10,000 could buy 50 years ago, but from childhood memory I know that in 1958, a new Cadillac dented your bank account by four grand. From this, we can see how much of a life-changer $10,000 would have meant to the African American family in Lorraine Hansberry's landmark 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun, whose screen version was something of a landmark itself when it opened 50 years ago this spring.

In what was then the latest boost to his escalating screen career, Sidney Poitier played patriarch-by-default Walter Lee Younger — getting older at 35 and working as chauffeur to a white employer. Walter is borderline desperate to invest his late father's insurance check in (he hopes) a lot-improving liquor store — agitating his religious mother (Claudia McNeil, who, like Poitier, recreated her Tony-nominated stage performance). There's also the competing med school aspiration of sister Beneatha (Diana Sands) — itself risky given her flighty history of tackling self-improvement "projects," such as horse riding or guitar lessons, then quitting.

The family's raucous monetary squabbling sounds universally middle class — or at least the kind engaged in by folks eager to attain that status. But black characters with these concerns were next to unheard of on mainstream screens half-a-century ago when Columbia Pictures, which released Sun, was also releasing Underworld U.S.A. and Gidget Goes Hawaiian.

Claiming "first" distinctions for major studio releases is dicey and usually courts correction. Just two years earlier, for example, United Artists had released Take a Giant Step — tiny but worth mentioning because it is, just as we speak, premiering on DVD as an "on-demand" title from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. Starring singer Johnny Nash and Sun's Ruby Dee as a housemaid who catches his eye, it had a predominantly black cast and dealt with the growing pains of a well-bred teenager of color.

 

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