Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.
USA, 1961. Columbia Pictures. Screenplay by Lorraine Hansberry, based on her play. Cinematography by Charles Lawton Jr.. Produced by Ronald H. Gilbert, Philip Rose, David Susskind. Music by Laurence Rosenthal. Production Design by Carl Anderson. Film Editing by William A. Lyon, Paul Weatherwax. Cannes Film Festival 1961. Golden Globe Awards 1961. National Board of Review Awards 1961.
Lorraine Hansberry wrote one of the best plays ever to be performed on the American stage and, thankfully, director Daniel Petrie doesn’t screw up adapting it despite its not punching the same weight on film. The story concerns the life of a Chicago family cramped into a tiny apartment, a couple, their son, and the husband’s sister and mother, who are on the verge of a big change in life: matriarch Claudia McNeil is about to receive a hefty cheque from her late husband’s life insurance policy and no one knows what she plans to do with it. Her daughter (Diana Sands) is in medical school and is going to defy expectations by becoming a doctor, which McNeil wants to pay for, while her son (Sidney Poitier) wants to use the money to get into a business venture that he believes will make him rich. When it seems like a good idea to get their family out of their current home and into a proper house in a white-picket-fence neighbourhood, other troubles arise, as the residents of that all-white enclave have no intention of letting a black family move in next door (this aspect of the story was inspired by Hansberry’s own father’s attempt to buy a house, which resulted in a case that was brought before, and made history in, the Supreme Court). Themes of race and class and their effect on the American dream are the foundation upon which this story is built, the trajectory of overcoming them muddied up for this family by their own vulnerabilities. McNeil fears her son’s weakness as much as her love for him gives her hope that he will reach his full potential, and the narrative exists in the suspension between the two, beautifully combining Hansberry’s concern with injustices outside the community with issues that exist within. The play’s razor-sharp characterizations and awe-inspiring dialogue are for the most part intact, though on film this one ends up feeling a bit self-aware and stagy, and up close the miscasting of Poitier in the lead role is much more obvious, he can’t really convince you that he’s desperate or working class and it undercuts a good deal of the film’s credibility. Ruby Dee as his wife, however, gives us miles of energy and strength in a role that could easily fade into the background without someone as charismatic as her playing her, while McNeil and Sands are stellar in theirs.