Remembering ‘A Raisin in the Sun’

raisinposterIn the year of the Freedom Rides, in which an interracial group of activists challenged Jim Crow segregation by traveling throughout the South by bus, Columbia released A Raisin in the Sun. A faithful adaptation of the play by Lorraine Hansberry, the film stars most of the original Broadway cast, including Sidney Poitier, Claudia McNeil, Diana Sands, Ruby Dee, Ivan Dixon, Louis Gossett, Jr., and John Fiedler. On Wednesday, January 14, TCM airs A Raisin in the Sun at 9:45 pm, a reminder of a brief time when Hollywood produced a number of social dramas that directly or indirectly dealt with racial issues.

A Raisin in the Sun marked the second film by director Daniel Petrie. A part of  the generation of directors that included Sidney Lumet, John Frankenheimer, and George Roy Hill, Petrie began his career in theater and on television during the late 1950s. This generation believed that  commercial tv and Hollywood films could convey controversial issues to a mass audience—something studio heads had avoided during the Golden Age. As a television director, Petrie had worked frequently with producer David Susskind, who wanted to bring Lorraine Hansberry’s play to the big screen. I remember Susskind’s television talk show, which featured interviews with prominent politicians and controversial figures. Like his talk shows, his television programs and films chronicled the important social issues of the times, including civil rights, war, abortion, drugs, and crime. Susskind, Petrie, and this generation of directors were in sync regarding their belief that popular cinema could effectively be used for social change.

SADLY, PLAYWRIGHT LORRAINE HANSBERRY DIED AT AGE 35.

SADLY, PLAYWRIGHT LORRAINE HANSBERRY DIED AT AGE 35.

Among my smart and talented colleagues at Ringling College is June Petrie, who teaches producing classes in the film department. June is the daughter of Daniel Petrie, and she was kind enough to give me a transcript of a taped interview conducted by writer Dennis Brown with her father. It’s a piece of primary research in which he offers his insights into the production of A Raisin in the Sun, and I am honored that she shared it with me.

POITIER WAS INSTRUMENTAL IN GETTING THE PLAY MOUNTED ON BROADWAY.

POITIER WAS INSTRUMENTAL IN GETTING THE PLAY MOUNTED ON BROADWAY.

In the interview, Daniel Petrie recalled that he had seen the Broadway play before he was in  consideration to direct the film. The sincerity of his reaction is telling: He confesses that by the end, “I just started to bawl. I just couldn’t control myself. I had held it in so hard that now it just flowed out. I was so taken, so overwhelmed by the play, it was one of the big theater-going experiences that I had in my life.” When Sidney Lumet dropped out of the film production, the director of the play, Lloyd Richards, almost got the assignment. However, he had directed a television production that did not go well, sabotaging his chances for the film. Thus, Petrie seemed fated to direct A Raisin in the Sun when he put his bid in with Susskind for the job. A Raisin in the Sun has been called Petrie’s legacy film; according to June, it was one of the films he was most proud of.

POITIER AND PETRIE DISCUSS A SCENE.

POITIER AND PETRIE DISCUSS A SCENE.

Hollywood produced several films about race during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Civil rights and race issues focused on integration during this era, pushing for America to integrate its institutions, from education to voting to housing. The Hollywood industry can be commended for releasing films about race relations, including those that directly dealt with contemporary views on integration, such as The Defiant Ones and To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as those that indirectly dealt with it, such as Flaming Star. In these films, bigotry was exposed and condemned, and black characters were depicted as sympathetic and relatable, even heroic. These films were not difficult for white audiences to rally around, especially those up North. It’s easy to root for Poitier’s character in The Defiant Ones, because he makes a sacrifice for his white partner, or to side with Atticus Finch because he defends a poor black man falsely accused of rape. However, the politics of systemic racism were generally ignored in Hollywood movies in favor of dramatizing personal triumph. For example, there were no films that condemned states for voter registration violations, or uncovered the ugliness that occurred while integrating schools and colleges. The exception was A Raisin in the Sun, which challenged white audiences and  urban planners because it was about a black family that was trying to move into the suburbs; it literally hit white people where they lived.  According to Petrie, he wanted to make the film in the hopes that it would “open minds and neighborhoods.”

EXTERIORS FOR THE FILM WERE SHOT ON LOCATION IN CHICAGO. MOST OF THE FOLKS ON W. HIRSCH AVE. WERE ANYTHING BUT HOSPITABLE TO THE PRODUCTION TEAM.

EXTERIORS FOR THE FILM WERE SHOT  IN CHICAGO. MOST OF THE RESIDENTS ON W. HIRSCH AVE., THE LOCATION OF THE  YOUNGERS’ DREAM HOUSE, WERE ANYTHING BUT HOSPITABLE TO THE PRODUCTION TEAM.

This was a volatile issue in 1961 as revealed by an anecdote that Petrie tells in the interview. The production team decided to shoot exteriors on location in the Chicago area. They scouted a suburb with the kind of tract housing that the black family in the movie would have moved into. Homeowners in the area were asked if they were interested in lending their house for a movie starring Sidney Poitier. Of course, they would be paid for their trouble. After countless rejections, a young pregnant woman heartily agreed because she recognized Poitier’s name. As the first day of shooting progressed, the woman grew more and more agitated and upset. Apparently, when her neighbors saw the black actors in the street and around the house, they began to make threatening phone calls. One told her, “We’re gonna burn your damn house down.” Later in the day, Petrie politely asked one of her neighbors if he would mind moving from his porch because he was in the shot, and the man replied, “Go f___ yourself.” After the shooting had been completed for the day, Petrie rode back into the city with a disheartened and angry Poitier, who threatened, “I’m going to move to France. I can’t take it anymore.”

POITIER WITH CLAUDIA McNEIL, WHO PLAYED MAMA YOUNGER.

POITIER WITH CLAUDIA McNEIL, WHO PLAYED MAMA YOUNGER.

Petrie respected the play and thought that Hansberry had her “finger on the pulse of America and was able to articulate it in a way that middle class whites would identify with.” Not surprisingly, he changed very little for the film version. June recalls that the Production Code office requested that he cut a couple of “goddammits” from the script in addition to a derogatory remark about a character’s “faggety white shoes.” However, Petrie did not change or cut any phrases, because, according to June, “He was always extremely respectful of writers and their ability, as he put it, to find the ‘mot juste.’”

LOUIS GOSSETT, JR., RUBY DEE, AND POITIER

LOUIS GOSSETT, JR., RUBY DEE, AND POITIER

Any alterations to the play were quite subtle. For example, Poitier had always disagreed with Hansberry on Walter’s character. He disliked that Walter seemed weak in comparison to his mother and that he tried to drink away his problems. The actor felt the character played into a negative stereotype. For the film, Petrie allowed Poitier to read some of his lines with a different tone or inflection, while the director blocked the scene in a way that made Walter appear less weak. Petrie not only respected Poitier’s acting talent but also his skill at understanding the impact of his characters on audiences. He lauded the star for his “articulate” body that could move on a dime and express emotion. “Every limb moves and talks,” he noted. Poitier appreciated Petrie for allowing these subtle nuances to his character, while Hansberry did not notice any differences, or did not mind. Upon seeing the film on opening night, she told Petrie, “You done good.”

Though Susskind, Petrie, and the actors understood the importance of the film and were devoted to its success, the production did not always go smooth primarily because of Claudia McNeil, who plays the strong matriarch, Lena Younger. Poitier had had difficulties working with her during the play, and, within in three days of shooting the film, the two were not speaking. It didn’t take long for her to stop taking direction from Petrie, which resulted in Susskind stepping in and threatening to replace her. No cast member escaped her bad behavior. In the powerful scene in which the daughter, played by Diana Sands, tells her mother that she doesn’t believe in God, the camera is on Sands as she looks into a mirror. While shooting, the actress had difficulties with the scene and soon lost control of her performance. After several takes, Petrie took her aside and asked what the problem was, and Sands responded that off camera McNeil was either tossing away her lines, making a face, or picking her nose—anything to distract Sands from her performance. It’s to the credit of Petrie and the cast that the on-set tensions did not disrupt character relationships; any tension was folded into key moments in the narrative.

DIANA SANDS AND IVAN DIXON

DIANA SANDS AND IVAN DIXON

In the interview, Petrie expressed his admiration and respect for young actress Diana Sands, though his comments are tinged with sadness. Sands died of cancer at age 39, cutting short a solid career on the stage. Partly because of her character in A Raisin in the Sun, she was often cast as the modern black woman—fashionable, assertive, and smart. In 1964, she costarred opposite Alan Alda in the stage version of The Owl and the Pussycat, which was the first instance of an interracial couple in a Broadway play not about race. Other members of the cast to look for include a young Louis Gossett, Jr., and Ivan Dixon (later of Hogan’s Heroes), who compete for Sands’ affection.

After A Raisin in the Sun, Petrie worked in television and film for the next 40 years. His eclectic filmography includes such gems as Resurrection (1980) and Rocket Gibraltar (1988) as well as two of my favorite made-for-tv movies, Sybil (1976) and The Dollmaker (1983). Daniel Petrie died in 2004.

5 Responses Remembering ‘A Raisin in the Sun’
Posted By Arthur : January 12, 2015 3:41 pm

The Hansberry family actually moved into a hostile white neighborhood in which the mother and her children had to face howling mobs while the father fought in the courts to get racially “restrictive covenants” in housing deeds removed by the Supreme Court.

In addition to everything else, the film seamlessly and quite effectively develops plot and character simultaneously building toward a powerful double climax at the end. It is very, very well written.

Posted By Susan Doll : January 12, 2015 4:23 pm

Arthur: Thank you for the additional info on Hansberry. So sad she died so young.

Posted By kingrat : January 12, 2015 6:26 pm

The Dollmaker is one of the best TV movies/mini-series ever. Powerful stuff, with special resonance for me because two of my great-aunts moved their families from the South to Michigan to work in the factories, just as the characters in The Dollmaker do.

Posted By swac44 : January 12, 2015 10:14 pm

One of my regrets is that I didn’t get a chance to meet Petrie in person when he shot his autobiographical film The Bay Boy here in Nova Scotia (he was born and raised in Glace Bay, Cape Breton) and returned to premiere it at the Atlantic Film Festival. (He also shot the undersea adventure The Neptune Factor here in 1973, but the less said about that title, the better.) But I did get to interview his son Donald a number of years later, and A Raisin in the Sun came up as one of his father’s films he was proudest of. Thanks for a look deeper inside the production of this important film.

Posted By Find me kind @ Auditions Adda : January 13, 2015 6:35 am

Well remembered, It was a good movie and its in my top best movies list. Thanks for sharing us this story. cheers:)

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