A Raisin in the Sun is a 1961 film adapted from Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play about the fictional Younger family. The Youngers are a Black family living on Chicago’s Southside and thus far their dreams of a better life have been held in check by poverty and racism. As the family’s matriarch awaits a possibly life-changing insurance check resulting from her husband’s death, her son and daughter have hopes of using the money to pursue their dreams. The story follows the lives of the Youngers for a few weeks and explores their current lives versus their aspirations.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been aware of A Raisin in the Sun. It’s one of those plays that we discussed and likely watched the 1961 film in junior high school. I’ve always been into reading and movies but for some reason, I generally made it a point to pay as little attention as possible to anything we were assigned to read or watch for school. Thus I didn’t pay much attention to the play until I got to college and had to write a paper that tied together restrictive covenants and A Raisin in the Sun. This was because the play was inspired by Hansberry’s family’s experience with restrictive covenants when she was a child growing up in Chicago.
I don’t know if I just wasn’t paying attention in junior high and thus missed some of the finer points of A Raisin in the Sun. But in the time since I’ve become more aware of Lorraine Hansberry and did a Black History Short about her in 2021. Learning a bit more about Hansberry and that she wrote this play and unfortunately passed away at a relatively young age makes the accomplishment even more impressive. Revisiting the film with a more mature and focused frame of mind gave me a new appreciation for the story and performances as I was finally able to see what all the fuss was about.
The first thing in A Raisin in the Sun that caught my attention was the snappy dialogue as the words felt realistic and flowed well. That doesn’t always happen with plays as I find the acting can be a bit over the top, bordering on camp. Secondly, unlike most movies where there are multiple sets you still get the sense of this originally being a play as much of the story takes place within one set.
For the most part, A Raisin in the Sun takes place in the Younger family’s living room and kitchen combo and two separate bedrooms. The family consists of Walter Lee, his wife Ruth, son Travis, sister Beneatha, and mother Lena (Mrs. Younger). Walter and Ruth sleep in one room, Beneatha and Mrs. Younger share a room, and Travis sleeps on the living room couch.
I don’t know what kind of house this was where the apartment contained two decent-sized bedrooms, a kitchen, and a living room but the bathroom was located in the hallway and shared with at least one other family. How does this even work? I scorn other people using my bathroom even if they’re family members, much less some random neighbor down the hall. Who cleans the bathroom? Maybe it was a matter of people converting large homes that weren’t intended to be multi-families into rental units? Because of the setup, it’s a scramble in the morning to get into the bathroom.
Walter is in his mid-30s married with a child but not where he wants to be in life. He wants more for himself so he can give more to his son and wife. He’s not exactly a hustler but rather in his aim to do and have more casts about in desperation for some kind of investment or opportunity that would make those dreams a reality. With all of these different business ideas, Walter views the money that his mother is supposed to receive as the answer to his prayers.
There are three women in Walter’s life: his mother, wife, and sister. Walter attempts to draw Ruth and Beneatha into his plan to get Mrs. Younger to invest in his business ideas. But Ruth and Beneatha want no part in trying to tell Mrs. Younger what to do with the money. They view the money as being hers and think she should do with it as she pleases. Walter has a good relationship with his son and a decent relationship with his mother but there’s a bit of push and pull with his sister and wife.
Beneatha is 20 years old and trying to figure out who she is and wants to be. The plan is for her to attend medical school to become a doctor but in the meantime, she’s also pursuing various interests and trying things out. Walter is a chauffeur but has aspirations to be an entrepreneur and explores the possibility of various ventures. Yet, he doesn’t understand why Beneatha has to aim so high as to be a doctor rather than a nurse or simply just getting married and calling it a day.
His view of Beneatha’s dreams is incredibly sexist. It’s also hypocritical as he spends much of the morning fussing about the lack of his family’s support for his goals. He can understand why he as a man would want more out of life and believes he could go further with some encouragement. Yet he’s dismissive of Beneatha’s dreams. It’s unclear if this is a matter of sexism or jealousy towards Beneatha possibly having a great career in the future that would enable her to achieve some of the things he would like for himself but has been unable to make a reality. I felt it was possibly a bit of both.
Throughout the play, Walter comes across as a rather miserable person and a bit of a brat when dealing with his family. When Mrs. Younger appeared it became clear where some of Walter’s bratty behavior originated. She loves Travis, as does everyone else in the house. But she rushes to make Travis’ bed properly while Ruth recognizes that it’s been done improperly because he put no effort into doing it right. Mrs. Younger attempts to brush this observation aside by explaining that as a little boy Travis doesn’t need to spend his time thinking about housework.
A basic thing like cleaning up behind yourself and keeping your home tidy is asking too much. There are all of these petty rules about what males should and shouldn’t be doing to preserve their masculinity. Don’t get me wrong, Mrs. Younger was a sweet older woman but enabled Walter and was attempting to do the same with Travis. Yet, I couldn’t help but smile at her stating that she wasn’t meddling while meddling in everybody’s business.
The title A Raisin in the Sun comes from Langston Hughes’s poem “Harlem” which is also known as “A Dream Deferred”. Within the poem, Hughes asks the question of what happens to delayed or unrealized dreams. This theme of dreams and expectations contrasted against the realities of Black men and women is explored throughout Hansberry’s play and film.
Walter dreams big for himself as does Beneatha but he questions why the status quo can’t be good enough for her. When Mrs. Younger and her late husband first got married, they had all kinds of hopes and dreams. But life and time have caused those aspirations to fall by the wayside. In the South they expended so much energy just trying to escape to some degree of safety and then once in Chicago their attention was focused on basic survival. It’s been so long since she thought about those old dreams that Mrs. Younger has to spend some time thinking about what she’ll do with the money.
To be clear, the insurance check is for $10,000 (about $87-92,000 in today’s money) and isn’t enough to make Mrs. Younger wealthy. But it’s still enough money to make a meaningful impact on their lives if it’s put to good use. Mrs. Younger has recently retired and Ruth suggests that she take at least a little of the money and do something for herself as a reward for years of working hard and sacrificing. Going on a vacation somewhere and seeing a little bit of the world to enjoy herself is so outside the scope of what Mrs. Younger has deemed possible that she brushes aside the suggestion. Ruth suggesting this as a way to use some of the money also gives insight into some of her unspoken dreams.
Within the film, there’s this push and pull between the Youngers trying to find themselves and find more for themselves in life. There’s also an uncomfortable relationship between the old way of doing things and the new way of doing things. The people of Mrs. Younger’s generation and how they did things are different from Beneatha’s. And given the 15-year age gap between Walter and Beneatha, there’s a generational gap there as well.
There’s a moment of tension between Mrs. Younger and Beneatha after Beneatha makes some statements that could be regarded as her being an atheist or at least a non-believer. This is blasphemous to Mrs. Younger who is quite religious and it leads to an argument between the two about how they view the world and their place in it. The confrontation becomes rather heated and leads to Mrs. Younger slapping Beneatha. Out of respect for her mother, Beneatha backs down.
Walter wants to follow in the footsteps of a friend who invested in a liquor business that generates six figures of revenue. Mrs. Younger isn’t necessarily against investing in a business but not liquor on moral grounds. She wants to put the money to good use but has some limited views as to what they as a family are capable of achieving. Though it is admirable that she is unwilling to compromise her principles for money. Walter on the other hand seems more willing to operate in the gray while seeking success. Mrs. Younger laments how consumed her children seem to be with the thought of getting money.
Despite them warring, we also see multiple instances where Walter and Beneatha are like two sides of the same coin. Beneatha is trying to find and figure herself out while Walter is several years older and grappling with the fear that the hopes and dreams he has for himself might not happen. Unlike Beneatha, he has a family and thus responsibilities so he can’t spend his time or money exploring. It seems he feels sorry for himself and is casting about in desperation for something to help him make more of his life. He’s drowning and self-pity is causing him to lash out at his family members. Walter gripes at his sister, is rude to his mom and is cold towards Ruth.
In desperate pursuit of money, Walter engages in behaviors that will push his family members away. Noticing this, Mrs. Younger is a bit disappointed to see what her children are becoming. She explains that when she and her late husband were living in the South, survival was their chief concern. They put all of their energy into just surviving the racism of the South. Coming to the North and settling in Chicago was a breath of relief. It felt like a vast improvement over what they’d left and thus whatever little bit they had was enough for them.
They had hopes and dreams beyond mere survival but got caught up in the rat race. Just being in a comparatively safer environment made them a bit more comfortable as they were relieved from the crushing pressure of the South. Those seemingly minor changes felt like a major relief. Now living in Chicago and seeing more of what the world has to offer but feeling as though it’s cut off from them, Walter and Beneatha also feel a crush of pressure.
Feeling the limitations that society is attempting to put on them, they try to fight back in different ways. Walter desperately chases business ideas and feeling unsupported seeks solace outside the home. Mrs. Younger fears that he might be putting his marriage at risk by seeing another woman. But he’s out drinking and getting drunk at local bars which certainly isn’t helping his marriage either. I rarely drink but alcohol seems to be expensive at bars. If money is tight at home, no matter how little you might be spending, that’s money that you can put towards something else.
Walter being tipsy results in a funny scene where he returns home and joins Beneatha as she dances around the house to what I’m guessing is a record given to her by a classmate, Joseph Asagai. I was amused by the two of them calling a truce and having a friendly moment. But at the same time, I was internally shouting at Walter to get off the table with his dirty shoes.
In the midst of all this, Ruth is struggling with her problems and seems incredibly unhappy. She’s in a relationship with this man that is constantly fussing and complaining about everything, including her. Ruth seems to get along quite well with Beneatha and Mrs. Younger and she loves Travis. As a couple, Ruth and Walter can keep a roof over their heads and food in their bellies but can’t afford much of the things they want to have or give to Travis and that weighs on Ruth as well.
She is saddened by their circumstance but doesn’t seem to blame Walter. Instead, Ruth is a bit disappointed as she didn’t realize just how wide the distance between them as a couple had become. With this strain on her relationship with Walter, her unexpected pregnancy seems to be another burden. Instead of viewing the pregnancy as excitedly awaiting a new person to join the family, circumstances make Ruth focus on the addition as another mouth to feed and clothe.
Everyone is stressed out worrying about money and other material possessions which they see as the markings of a better life. They are but only to a certain point. But Mrs. Younger is dismayed by her children’s preoccupation with money, Walter especially. She laments that while she and her husband gained a lot by moving to the North their children have lost a lot by growing up in this environment. Mrs. Younger isn’t directly putting pressure on herself as she’s quite content with her life. But she does begin to feel some pressure from her children now that she has this insurance check.
Watching A Raisin in the Sun, I liked all of the characters except for Walter as I found him incredibly annoying. I understood and sympathized with his frustration at trying to achieve things in life only to find himself unable to make his plans a reality. But what I don’t agree with is taking out your frustrations on your family as Walter does. He spends a great deal of time talking about things that he wants to do and achieve while at the same time downplaying or ignoring the possibility that everyone else has dreams and aspirations of their own.
Walter seems rather entitled as he’s talking about all the things that he wants to do but his plans hinge on being able to use his mother’s money. If you want to do your thing, that’s cool, go for it. But if you’re depending on using someone else’s money to finance your plans that’s a problem. Your plans to achieve what you want in life should be based on your resources and capabilities rather than hinging on the support and encouragement of another individual. Figure something out instead of pouting about your family members who are equally poor not helping you achieve your dreams.
Not to mention, you can make better use of the time you take to go and sit in a bar drowning your sorrows or hanging around chit-chatting with your bummy friends. Walter would be better off finding some kind of a part-time job or hustle to make extra money. Take that money and save it up as seed money for another hustle that will get you more money and just keep flipping it and working your way up until you have enough to invest in a business.
He spends so much time complaining about things not going his way and how hard the world is for him while ignoring that the rest of his family is in much the same circumstances and situation. They’re striving for better and have their frustrations but don’t take it out on each other. I’ve never bought into the idea that men should be stoic machines who stifle and deny their feelings. That ideology gives rise to the unhealthy belief that the only acceptable emotion for a man to express is anger. But there’s some selfishness within Walter where I understand that he’s going through a hard time but I don’t think that means he should make everyone around him miserable.
Mrs. Younger takes the money she receives and begins plans to purchase a home for the family out of the goodness of her heart. She didn’t go on a vacation or spend the money on herself though it would have been well within her rights. Instead of doing something for herself she split the money and put her share towards buying a home for the entire family. Unlike Beneatha and Walter, she doesn’t think of herself and what she wants to achieve but rather what she can do to help the entire family. She’s done something nice that benefits Walter, his wife, and child but instead of being grateful he chooses to fuss because it’s not what he wanted to do.
Fine, Walter has hopes and dreams but he completely ignores his mother’s right to her dreams and the reality that it’s her money to do with as she pleases. Yet, she still turned around and gave Walter a cut of the money to do his own thing. I felt no sympathy for Walter getting swindled but rather the impact his loss of Beneatha’s share would have on her future. Regardless of his plans, they were not more important than Beneatha’s future. He spends the entire film moping and complaining about how rough and tough the world is and his wife is unsupportive but the reality is that he is just incredibly selfish.
Walter put his wishes ahead of everyone else’s in the family and in the process stole from his mother and sister. Absolutely bum behavior. Beneatha’s situation is unclear but the other adults in the home have all been working and contributing to the household. Because they’re most likely not earning enough to save for the purchase of a home this check is quite the windfall as it provides a large sum of money at one time. The money also makes it financially easier for Beneatha to attend medical school. Why would you risk that sum of money which you would have a hard time replacing if it went missing?
The entire family was happy and excited after visiting and walking through the house. Plans were put in place to purchase the home. If you’re joining with friends to purchase property as a business, what guarantees that you would be able to get a fast enough return on your investment or to draw out your initial investment by the time Beneatha is ready to attend medical school? Walter might want to be an entrepreneur but that doesn’t mean he has an aptitude for business.
In the aftermath of losing the money, he stops going to work which results in his job stating that he’ll be let go if he misses any more days. Ruth learns this after several days of him pretending to go to work. So not only has he lost Beneatha’s money but he risks losing his job as well. It’s just one bad decision after another.
Beneatha is understandably angry at Walter in the aftermath of him messing up the money as it included the funds that were to enable her to attend medical school. I agreed with Mrs. Younger’s principles about not allowing money to rule you but I disagreed with the perspective she offered when discussing Beneatha’s anger at Walter.
Walter is the entitled man-child brat that he is because he’s been enabled by at least his mother. This likely isn’t the message we’re intended to take from the story but that’s what I got from A Raisin in the Sun. Throughout the movie, Mrs. Younger takes Walter to task but she makes excuses for his actions when anyone else attempts to do the same. He’s faced some hardships and hard times in his life but that’s him and everyone else.
There’s this idea that if he does wrong and feels sorry for himself then they’re supposed to pull together and support him. Walter losing the money was not an accident. It’s not like he did what he was supposed to with the money and his friend then ran off. He took more than his share of the money (basically stealing) from his sister to do his own thing which put Beneatha’s ability to attend medical school in jeopardy.
I don’t agree with the idea that we just move past that and love him despite the wrong he’s done. He’s been mean to just about everyone throughout A Raisin in the Sun. And here it is Mrs. Younger is making excuses for his poor decisions and bad behavior. Yes, as a Black man the world is giving him a hard time but he then comes home and gives his family a hard time.
And then when he does wrong, when he harms his family much as the world has harmed him, they’re expected to quickly get over it. This man has possibly put Beneatha’s future in jeopardy and she’s given a timeline for how long she can be mad at him? They’re expected to comfort, nurture, and build him back up. Where were his compassion and understanding when he was being a jerk to everyone?
This is a problematic message that’s often repeated when family members do wrong. There’s a tendency to stress that you’re supposed to love your family members despite their faults and even when they make mistakes. But how often does the person acknowledge the wrong they’ve done, offer a sincere apology, and then propose what they intend to do to fix the situation? Walter comes clean to his mother about the money but does he even offer a heartfelt apology to Beneatha for not just losing the money but for how he’s treated her?
If a family member loses their job, becomes ill, or suffers some other misfortune at least mostly beyond their control then I think you should try to be there for them. But this is the equivalent of a family member stealing your identity or taking out a credit card and running it up in your name. And then you are expected to forgive and forget about it because they’re family. They might be family but they’ve treated you worse than a stranger.
This idea that because it’s family, they can do whatever to you and you’re just supposed to automatically forgive and have understanding enables bad behavior. Not even having to apologize and make things right might encourage them to continue doing the same kind of stuff over and over again. Walter has proven himself to be not just selfish but also untrustworthy.
There’s also quite a bit of sexism at play here as in the closing moments of A Raisin in the Sun Mrs. Younger figuratively hands control of the family to Walter by allowing him to make important decisions. He has felt “emasculated” by both society outside the home and his mother within their household as she previously made the decisions.
It’s telling that Walter’s fragile manhood is reliant on the women around him offering encouragement. There are four adults in the family, three of whom are women but Walter because of his gender is seen as being the rightful leader of the family. Embedded within this setup is quite a bit of sexism. Walter’s male identity is based on his ability to dictate what goes on in the household. For him to feel like a man, Walter needs to have the power and authority to control everyone in the house, as the world does with him.
This concept is often repeated, especially within Black media. So much of the idea of a man being allowed to be a man is based upon him not being perceived as exhibiting feminine traits or partaking in feminine gender roles. For Walter, this means being able to call the shots in his home. But this is despite him needing his mother’s financial assistance to move forward in life and constantly complaining about his wife’s lack of support. Honestly, merely having male genitalia does not automatically make you smart or a leader. Not to mention that Walter has shown himself to have poor decision-making skills. While I think this is a great story the message that it conveys is incredibly problematic. It’s quite sexist.
Because we don’t get much background, it’s unclear what has happened in Walter’s life and how he and Ruth ended up together. Travis is about six years old but he’s been married to Ruth for 11 years. He would have been in his mid-20s and possibly a bit unprepared for the realities of marriage and full knowledge of what he was getting himself into.
Walter believes that having more money will enable him to buy and provide Ruth with luxuries and more comfort. With Travis, Walter tries to be a good father to him in the present. But he’s impatient and mean towards Ruth with plans that he’ll be able to be a good husband when he has money and can buy her things. Meanwhile, Ruth doesn’t seem to want things, she’s the only one within A Raisin in the Sun that doesn’t ask for or base her dreams on money. Ruth married Walter knowing that he was broke and would likely be content with him treating her well.
Walter wants more out of life and to his credit is entrepreneurial but at this point, his ambitions are held in check while he’s limited to working as a chauffeur. Instead of being able to be happy about her pregnancy, Ruth is weighed down with the thoughts of providing for another child within the limitations of the family’s financial situation. It also doesn’t help that her marriage with Walter is going through what is hopefully just a temporary rough patch.
In financially comfortable families, things like horseback riding lessons, music lessons, and college are a part of childhood and young adulthood. But Beneatha exploring and figuring out her place in the world by experimenting with these experiences requires a relatively significant financial sacrifice from her family members. A simple thing like 50 cents for Travis to participate in a school program requires a discussion about its affordability.
Mrs. Younger has dreamed of owning a home, nothing fancy, just a little place to call her own with a yard where Travis can play. She’s braved the open hostility of the South and survived the grind of the North. Despite working hard for years she’s been prevented from achieving her dream of purchasing a home by a lack of money for a downpayment. Now even after getting the money together and finding a home that fits her vision, she’s still met with obstacles. The home is located in Clybourne Park, an all-White neighborhood, and members of the community are so displeased with the idea of the Youngers moving in that they offer to purchase the house from them at a profit.
Joseph Asagai and George Murchison are Beneatha’s two suitors, the former being a student from Nigeria and the latter a local from a relatively wealthy family. Joseph Asagai was cute, I think it was the combination of a warm smile, nice accent, and down-to-earth aura. Not to be mean but how old was George supposed to be? When he first walked in I thought Beneatha was seeing an older man but then realized that he’s supposed to be around her age. Maybe he had been attending school for a very long time? I didn’t even realize until I was looking at a list of the cast members that George was portrayed by Louis Gossett, Jr. in what was his film debut.
Contrasting the relationships between Asagai and George, there’s a marked difference in the interactions with Beneatha. There’s easy banter between Beneatha and Asagai and while he pokes fun at her it’s light-hearted. We see fewer scenes with Beneatha and George but the little we see makes him appear rather stuffy and pretentious.
There’s another version of the play that featured extended scenes with George in which he and Beneatha discuss Africa. He’s rather dismissive of his ancestral ties to the continent and as a traditional man laments Beneatha’s independence. Asagai takes deep pride in his heritage, generously shares it with Beneatha, and encourages her varied interests. Comparing her interactions with the two suitors, Beneatha and Asagai seemed as though they would be a good match and could be happy together.
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