Did anyone see ABC’s remake of A Raisin in the Sun last night? What did you think? The original 1961 film, based on Lorraine Hansberry’s classic play, is one of the most powerful family dramas I’ve ever seen. The entire cast, but especially Sidney Potier as Walter Lee Younger and Claudia McNeil as his mother, Lena Younger, were exceptional. Their portrayal of a proud African American family’s struggles on Chicago’s Southside should be required viewing for anyone interested in American history or heartfelt drama. The play tackles themes as varied and timely as the role of African American men in black households, the emergence of Afro-centrism in black culture, Christian faith as both a limiting and liberating power, and the tension of the African American woman’s struggle for both gender and racial equality. Hansberry was in command of her art and prescient regarding the social themes of both black culture and American culture in general. When I heard that Sean “P. Diddy” Combs would be taking on the role of Walter for a 2004 Broadway revival of the play, I knew he had his work cut out for him.
Combs’s updating of the play premiered to rave reviews, though many critics did flag the rapper’s performance as one of the production’s weaknesses. Still, it became one of the all-time highest grossing plays on Broadway and introduced a whole new generation to Hansberry’s important work. I didn’t get to see the Broadway production, so I was excited to learn that Combs and the rest of the revival’s main cast (Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald, and Sanaa Lathan) would be reprising their roles for a made-for-TV film.
Watching the film last night, I was moved at moments. Everyone did an admirable job, especially Ms. Rashad. And though Combs still seemed way out of his league as Walter (that Potier shadow is a lot to overcome), I admired his courage for taking on the role.
One scene in particular reminded me of how great Lorraine Hansberry had been in capturing not only the plight of the African American condition in 1959 but the ongoing plight of the human condition, and our need to apply love and grace in all of our relationships. I’ve linked to the scene from the 1961 film, but I’ll also include Lena Younger’s words here. After her younger daughter, Beneatha, asserts that Walter is an embarrassment and “there’s nothing left to love” about him, Lena rebukes her with this redemptive response:
“There’s always something left to love. Have you cried for that boy today? I don’t mean for yourself and your family because we lost the money. I mean for him and what he’s gone through. God help him. God help him, what it’s done to him.
“Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When he’s done good and made everything easy for everybody? Oh no, no, that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and he can’t believe in himself ’cause the world done whipped him so. When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. You make sure that you done taken into account the hills and the valleys that he’s come through to get to wherever he is.”