First of all, a TV movie at Sundance? What the hell, ABC? I know that these days the festival is about as far from indie as one can get without actually being a Cineplex, but a TV MOVIE? Second, just because a person is a successful musician (with the notable exception of Mos Def) does not an actor make. Barring that, “A Raisin in the Sun” isn’t bad… for a TV MOVIE.
Based on the 1959 stage play by Lorraine Hansberry, “A Raisin in the Sun” tells the story of a poor African American family struggling to make ends meet in the South Side of Chicago. When the Lena Younger, the family’s widowed matriarch (played by Clair Huxtable herself, Phylicia Rashad) learns that she will be receiving a $10,000 insurance check from her husband’s estate, emotions come to a head. Lena’s son, Walter Lee (P. Diddy), wants to “invest” the money in a hair-brained business opportunity. Lena’s daughter, Beneatha, has hopes of being put through medical school. Walter Lee’s wife, Ruth, doesn’t feel any entitlement to the money, but she certainly feels the pangs of poverty. The youngest, er, Younger, Walter Lee and Ruth’s son Travis, would just like to stop sleeping on the couch.
Lena is faced with a tough decision about how to allocate the money whilst both honoring the memory of her late husband and keeping her surviving family happy. This complicated task is made more so when she controversially purchases a 3-bedroom house in a “white neighborhood”, the residents of whom send a nebbish John Stamos over to try and buy them out.
The film is shot with a hand-held camera and mostly close-ups. I assume that this was done to give more of a documentary-feel. However, dialog, unchanged from the stage script, feels like stage dialog. And there is very little restraint in the performances to change that. The performances also bring up some questions about intent for the characters. For instance, I don’t know if Walter Lee Younger is meant to come off as a whiney, immature, ungrateful cad, but P. Diddy certainly plays him as such. It’s hard for me to believe that a strong character like Lena have allowed such disrespect to breed in her home.
Contrarily it seems to be implied that the idealistic, atheistic aspiring doctor, Beneatha Younger’s outlook on life stems from inexperience and naiveté: an implication with which I took personal issue. However, this may have more to do with the tone of the text than with Sanaa Lathan’s performance.
The biggest element keeping “A Raisin in the Sun” from transcending the cheese of TV Movie Land was the stunt casting. Sean Combs may be an actor, but we all know it’s P. Diddy saying those lines. It may have been 13 years since Uncle Jesse asked people to “have mercy”, but unfortunately, a nebbish hairdo does not free John Stamos from that stigma. Phylicia Rashad may be the only actor who is able to lose herself in her role. Even then, I was mostly thinking “Damn. Clair Huxtable is a good crier”.
The opening monologue from the unmistakable timber of Morgan Freeman does lend the film a little credibility, as does the powerful dialog and a good number of the performances by lesser known TV personalities. However, there are no bones about it: “A Raisin in the Sun” is a made-for-TV-movie, which means that no matter how many inspired speeches about family and rising up from the ashes of oppression there are, there’s still a good chance that Mary Catherine Gallagher will someday be reciting those very lines before falling backwards into some chairs and exposing her underpants.