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Case Number 13533

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A Raisin In The Sun

Sony // 2008 // 131 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // April 30th, 2008

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All Rise...

Judge Clark Douglas is interested in seeing the prequel, A Grape in the Refrigerator.

Editor's Note

Our review of A Raisin In The Sun, published February 29th, 2000, is also available.

The Charge

Never give up on your dreams. Never give up on each other.

Opening Statement

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore,
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over -
Like sugary sweet?

Maybe it just sags,
Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?
- Langston Hughes

Facts of the Case

Based on the acclaimed play by Lorraine Hansberry, this new television production of A Raisin in the Sun attempts to tell the story of an African-American family fighting against many forms of adversity during the 1950s.

Sean Combs (aka the artist formerly known as P. Diddy, who was the artist formerly known as Puff Daddy) plays Walter Lee Younger, a chauffer who is just barely getting by. Walter and his wife (Audra McDonald, Private Practice) don't make much money, but they manage to scrape together just enough to keep their young son (Justin Martin) well-fed and educated. They live in a small apartment with Walter's old-fashioned mother (Phylicia Rashad, The Cosby Show) and his opinionated sister (Sanaa Lathan, Something New).

The family has to struggle every day with a variety of oppressive factors; racism and poverty being chief among them. However, when the family matriarch learns that she is going to receive a $10,000 check from her insurance company, the family begins to dream of new possibilities. Unfortunately, they don't all have the same dreams. The mother wants to buy a new home for the family, but Walter wants to invest the money in a liquor store. Whatever happens, it's not going to be easy for the Younger family to succeed, as there are people at every turn who want to prevent this struggling African-American family from achieving the American dream.

The Evidence

A Raisin in the Sun is an excellent play, one of the landmark artistic achievements of the civil rights era. It has been re-staged and adapted for the large and small screen many times, with the most notable version being the 1961 film starring Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. The source material is so strong that it's difficult to make a bad film based on it, and this latest version does indeed succeed at telling the story in a touching and effective way. However, it seems to me to be in the unfortunate position of being absolutely unnecessary. If you're going to adapt A Raisin in the Sun, you need to bring something new to the proceedings. For one thing, every adaptation thus far has felt very much like a stage play, regardless of whether it is actually on the stage. Perhaps something could be done to make everything more cinematic? Alas, this version only provides a few exterior shots that don't go very far towards removing the stage-y feel of the play.

Another way to approach the story might have been to find a way to make the film more relevant for modern audiences. Perhaps you could try to add more complexity to moments or small characters that seem a little one-dimensional. Perhaps there were moments that had to be delivered in a tame manner during the 1950s and 1960s that could be presented more forcefully here. Alas, that avenue is not explored, either. The film feels very old-fashioned, and that's not really a bad thing artistically. The film works, it really does. It's just that the original 1961 film offers every single thing this film does…only a little more effectively.

If you've seen the 1961 film, I suspect you will constantly be comparing this film to that one as you watch it. I also strongly suspect that in almost every case, the 1961 film will emerge as the superior option. That particularly extends to the cast. The original film featured superb performances from Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee as a married couple. This film features Sean Combs and Audra McDonald, neither of whom is capable of matching their predecessors. In particular, Combs comes across as exceptionally wooden and uninvolving. There were times when his deadpan delivery during emotional scenes seemed to veer dangerously into Napoleon Dynamite territory. You have to give Combs credit, this story obviously resonates with him (he played the role on stage prior to this), but he just doesn't have the acting chops of Sidney Poitier. Not even close.

Another disappointing factor is the music by composer Mervyn Warren, who never resists the opportunity to sugar up an emotional speech or touching moment. The speeches are hardly subtle, but they would be very effective on their own. Warren's overdone accompaniment pushes too hard, his score should have taken a more low-key approach. However, his work is one of the best-sounding things. The simple stereo mix works well enough, and the soft, slightly drab color palette seems to suit this material effectively enough. As for the rest of the DVD, extras include a decent featurette and a not-bad commentary from director Kenny Leon (he directed the recent stage version, but this is his first film).

The Rebuttal Witnesses

One element which really does shine in this particular version is the superb performance of Phylicia Rashad as the family matriarch. She creates such a complex, well-rounded character that we care about deeply, and easily commands every scene she shares with her co-stars. Rashad has had to settle for a mixed bag of television work, but A Raisin in the Sun is strong evidence that she needs to be working in high-profile material. Unfortunately, Hollywood doesn't provide a lot of interesting roles for women of Rashad's age. So, I'm okay with the fact that this film was made because it gives her a really terrific role.

I'm also okay with the fact that this film was made because it just might introduce a new generation of viewers to this story. Believe it or not, there are people out there who have never heard of A Raisin in the Sun or Sidney Poitier, much less Lorraine Hansberry. I'm sure that this particular production was viewed by people who had never heard of the story before, and I suspect that those people will benefit the most from A Raisin in the Sun.

Closing Statement

I'm having a very difficult time coming up with an appropriate judgment for this film. In a world in which no other version of A Raisin in the Sun exists, this is an easy recommendation. It is a solid telling of a strong story, despite a couple of casting problems. However, we do not live in a world in which there is no other version of A Raisin in the Sun. I would be doing you a disservice if I recommended this to you if you have seen the 1961 version, and I would be doing you a disservice if I recommended this to you if have not seen the 1961 version. So I cannot recommend this film to you. However, if you do happen to see the film, I sincerely doubt that you will regret it.

The Verdict

Whoever decided that we needed another version of A Raisin in the Sun that does not improve upon older versions in any way is guilty of negligence, and is sentenced to put more thought into their next remake. The film itself, and almost all of those who participated in creating it, are not guilty due to evidence which suggests they put sincere care into doing justice to the story.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 80
Audio: 82
Extras: 73
Acting: 83
Story: 90
Judgment: 85

Perp Profile

Studio: Sony
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• English
• French
Running Time: 131 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Drama
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Audio Commentary
• "Dreams Worthwhile: The Journey of A Raisin in the Sun"


• IMDb

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