When a film is compared to a made-for-TV movie, it's like scraping the bottom of the simile barrel, because TV movies have become almost synonymous with drivel. The production values are usually suspect, the casting call seems to reach no farther than your own neighborhood, the cliché odometer rolls over at least once, and the writing is so bad you have to suspect patronage.
But this 2008 production of "A Raisin in the Sun" is one of those rare TV movies that raises its head proudly above the muck and dross of the usual boob-tube fare. Even Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and his limited acting skills can't drag it down.
With a screenplay based on Lorraine Hansberry's celebrated 1959 play, the framework was certainly in place for success. Hansberry manages to weave all of the important themes of the black experience into a drama that also offers characters who are dealing with personal problems that are more universal. Hansberry grew up on the south side of Chicago, and like the family in her play, they moved into an all-white neighborhood where she experienced discrimination. "A Raisin in the Sun" became the first successful Broadway play written by a black woman, and the first to be nominated for a Tony Award, and screenwriter Paris Qualles ("The Rosa Parks Story," "The Tuskegee Airmen") does a fine job adapting it.
Sometimes the musical backdrop tilts this production toward the melodramatic, but for the most part "A Raisin in the Sun" is a compelling drama that sustains its tension between the main characters and within the main characters. Phylicia Rashad plays the matriarch of a family who has just lost their husband and father. The chief problem (and the thing that sets this story in motion) is that Lena is expecting an insurance check for $10,000 to be delivered any day now, and her two children have different ideas about how that money should be spent.
Walter (Combs) is sick and tired of the life they lead. He's a chauffeur for a wealthy white man who barely acknowledges him, while Lena is retiring as a nanny for a different white family and Walter's wife, Ruth (Audra McDonald), takes in laundry for another white woman. As Walter laments, he's 35 years old, married 11 years, and his son Travis (Justin Martin) has to sleep on a couch in the living room because the family shares a single apartment, and they all have to share a single bathroom with tenants from three floors. He wants something more, and the friend he hangs out with (Bill Nunn, as Bobo) gets him stoked about investing in a business. A smooth-talker named Willy (Ron C. Jones) convinces them that a liquor store is the way to go. Can Ruth try to persuade Mama to give him the money?
Ruth, however, has her own problems. As cramped as they are for space and as little money as they have, it's almost unfathomable to her that she's pregnant. And she's thinking of seeing the hairdresser from Jamaica whom people say can get rid of babies.
Then there's Walter's sister, Beneatha (Sanaa Lathan), who is going through an anti-assimilation phase and wanting to learn about Africa. She dates a wealthy black collegian (Sean Patrick Thomas) but has more of an interest in a fellow student and teaching assistant from Nigeria (David Oyelowo, as Asagai), who takes an interest in her as well. Beneatha wants to be a doctor, and her mother has already promised her some of the money for medical school. But she's as flighty about her interests (dance, guitar, horseback riding, etc.) as her brother is about his get-rich-quick schemes.
All four main characters reprise their roles from the stage, but it's McDonald who turns in the bravura performance, while Combs plays off her with a sullen stupefaction that somehow seems adequate. Not a lot more happens, but the dialogue between the characters is so uncommonly significant that you can't help but watch mesmerized as the story plays itself out. In one scene where Walter tries to convince his mother to let him invest in the liquor store, she accuses him of only caring about money. "Money is life," Walter responds. And Lena says, "I remember a time when freedom was life. Has it changed that much?" In some ways, yes, but in other ways--as numerous examples of discrimination attest--no.
The production values are excellent, and never once do we feel as if anyone has skimped to shoot a scene on the cheap. There are far more exterior and multiple-set sequences than in most TV films adapted from plays, and that makes the story of the Younger family seem all the more 3-dimensional. From the opening, when Morgan Freeman reads lines from Langston Hughes' poem ("What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?/Or fester like a sore--/And then run?"), to an upbeat ending that celebrates family as much as the black experience, "A Raisin in the Sun" provides that rare blend of entertainment and enlightenment.
"A Raisin in the Sun" is mastered in High Definition and presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, so it also looks considerably better than the average TV movie. Colors and costume design evoke the '50s in a way that makes us appreciate the slightly drab palette of the south Chicago neighborhood, with brighter colors dancing on the screen during sequences involving rich white families. It's not accidental, of course, but neither does it stand out as an intrusive gimmick. Only in retrospect do you realize that the colors helped to sustain certain moods and impressions. And the detail? For a standard DVD, there's a surprising clarity.
The audio is also above and beyond what we normally see in a TV release, with an English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (CC) delivering a nice, rich bass, a not-too-tinny treble, and an overall mellow timbre. Subtitles are in English and French, and the rear speakers actually get involved with subtle ambient noises.
"Dreams Worthwhile: The Journey of A Raisin in the Sun intercuts photographs and information about Hansberry's life with scenes from the 1961 film and interviews with the cast, Hansberry family members (a sister and a niece), and even a cast member from the 1961 production. It's a very nice, compact bonus feature. I would have preferred more information on Hansberry's other works and her premature death by cancer, but what's here is well done. The only other bonus feature is an audio commentary by director Kenny Leon, who tells how this is his first film though he directed "A Raisin in the Sun" on stage five times, including the 2004 Broadway production. He offers a commentary that's rich in information, though there are a number of dead-air pauses. But he's pretty forthcoming with "secrets," as he calls them, willing to share whatever information he has.
No one is going to argue that Sean Combs is even close to Sidney Poitier, but with such talented actors around him--particularly Audra McDonald--he manages to keep his head above water. For that, though, credit Lorraine Hansberry, whose play offers a remarkable series of scenes that rival each other for emotional depth and complexity of issues. The filmmakers said that they wanted to update the 1961 film for a new generation, and they've done so admirably.