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A Raisin in the Sun

(2008) *** 1/2 Unrated
131 min. ABC.

/content/films/3090/1.jpgSome modern American plays have become, in a short period of time, the stage equivalent of jazz standards: A Long Day's Journey Into Night, Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire. Not surprisingly, these indelible plays put their finger on the pulse of the American family and trail the pursuit of that ever-elusive American Dream. So too has A Raisin in the Sun endured as a quintessentially American play, revisited and refreshed regularly with new ensembles. As much as one can wish Lorraine Hansberry's sociopolitical themes have become irrelevant, the play remains vital on the subjects of discrimination, assimilation, and exploitation. But where so many of Hansberry's peers denoted despair, Hansberry finds hope in the core value of family unity.

The Younger family is at a crossroads and cross purposes at the outset of the story, set in 1959. With the recent death of the family patriarch, Walter Lee Younger Jr. (Sean Combs) has already begun mentally spending the $10,000 insurance check on its way to his "mama," Lena (Phylicia Rashad). Though doubtful, Walter's wife Ruth (Audra McDonald) tentatively aligns herself with Walter's get-rich-quick scheme to invest in a liquor store; when she fails to muster encouragement, she can feel her husband's love slipping away. Mama's youngest, Beneatha (Sanaa Lathan)—essentially a Hansberry self-portrait—looks forward to becoming a doctor on the family's dime, while Walter's school-age son Travis (Justin Martin) pines for more spending money.

Tired of the family languishing in a cramped South Side Chicago tenement, Mama has her own designs for the money: a house in the suburbs. Like the puny but persevering plant that Mama tends ("It expresses me," she says bluntly), the walled-in family isn't getting the sunlight it needs for upward mobility. Before the play is over, the family's trust in each other will be tested, especially when ungentlemanly caller Karl Lindner (John Stamos), of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, proffers a Faustian bargain not to go where the Youngers aren't wanted.

Beneatha's courtship by two distinctly different students, African gentleman Joseph Asagai (David Oyelowo) and well-off African-American playboy George Murchison (Sean Patrick Thomas), allows Hansberry to explore African-American identity and the importance of maintaining cultural roots. Similarly, the play poses a face-off between two principal American values: the pursuit of happiness, with family, and the pursuit of money. The conflict pits Mama's force of will against Walter's, with the family's future (represented by silent witness Travis) hanging in the balance.

Preserving the cast and director of the hit 2004 Broadway production, ABC's 2008 telefilm mirrors the 1961 screen version by opening up the action and gently tweaking Hansberry's original script (the omission of Walter's line about George's "faggoty white shoes" is a cowardly dodge and missed opportunity to display Walter's own capacity for discrimination); the most faithful version remains the 1989 PBS filming. But this one has towering performances from Rashad and McDonald, recreating their Tony-winning performances. Executive producer Sean Combs is no doubt responsible for the revival being a hit, but he lacks the emotional heft to make Walter Lee Younger as convincing or heartbreaking as his mother and wife. Still, he's of a piece with a subtler take on the source material, filmed by Kenny Leon with intimate handheld camera. For generations of viewers, this will be their Raisin in the Sun, and a worthy one.

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Aspect ratios: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround

Street date: 5/13/2008

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sony delivers a clean, fresh transfer and 5.1 sound mix for A Raisin in the Sun—though the image may seem a bit soft for the age of HDTV, it's in keeping with the period style and film-like look. Happily, a couple of bonus features are included. Director Kenny Leon contibutes a feature-length commentary that demonstrates his long history with the show and his gratitude to the cast; it tends to the fawning over the anecdotal, but Leon does offer some insight into the challenge of transplanting the play to film. "Dreams Worthwhile: The Journey of A Raisin in the Sun" (23:29) is an EPK-style featurette distinguished by the participation of some of Lorraine Hansberry's living relatives: sister Mamie Hansberry, niece Nantille Hansberry Charbonnet, and great-niece Taye Hansberry. Also on hand are Leon, executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, Sean Combs, Audra McDonald, Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan, John Stamos, and screenwriter Paris Qualles. Previews are provided for My Mom's New Boyfriend, First Sunday, The Company, and Damages—Season One.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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