Serviceable television adaptation doesn’t belong at Sundance

A Raisin in the Sun

on January 19, 2008 by Ray Greene

A Raisin in the Sun is a perfectly serviceable television adaptation of the recent Broadway revival of Lorraine Hansbury’s classic 1959 play, but why it got a press screening at the Sundance Film Festival is difficult to say. (Dear Sundance programmers: What part of “Film” don’t you understand?)

Perhaps it all has something to do with the presence of rap mogul Puff Daddy, aka P. Diddy, aka Diddy, here replicating his legit turn as Walter Younger, an angry and prematurely aging young African-American man who works as a chauffer while dreaming of opening a liquor store with the life-insurance money his mother has just inherited from his father’s early demise. Diddy, here telegraphing his serious commitment to the role by taking top billing and using his birth name Sean Combs, is a stolid and effective Walter; while he lacks the quicksilver alacrity and innate leading-man glamour Sidney Poitier brought to the 1961 movie adaptation, in some ways this makes Combs more suitable than Poitier to Hansbury’s work-worn world.

But this piece really belongs to the women: Phylicia Rashad as the matriarch Lena; Audra McDonald as Walter’s conflicted wife Ruth, suffering her way through the quiet domestic war of a partially failed marriage; and Sanaa Lathan as Beneatha, the character one suspects is a rueful stand-in for the playwright herself—an ambitious black college girl who hears the call of the nascent civil rights and black power movements but reacts with a mixture of laudable idealism and immature lack of sympathy for the grace and beauty of the black women who surround her and whom such winds of change will never reach.

Director Kenny Leon has “opened up” the play with a graceful use of steadicam and crane shots that is effective without being distracting. Rashad and McDonald both won Tony awards for their Broadway performances, but there is nothing stagy or theatrical to their playing here—everyone, including the rap mogul, is natural and believable. Rashad makes a serious bid to unseat Ruby Dee as the female dean of African-American actors.

Which is all the more a miracle given an absolutely rancid music score that does its best to flatten the subtlety and nuance of the playing into the most monochromatic and bathetic kind of treacle. But that’s television for you. And what was this doing in a film festival again?

Distributor: ABC
Cast: Sean Combs, Phylicia Rashad, Audra McDonald and Sean Patrick Thomas
Director: Kenny Leon
Writer: Paris Qualles
Producer: John M. Eckert
Genre: Drama
Rating: Not yet rated
Running time: 131 min.
Release date: February 25, 2008 TV
Reviewed: Sundance Film Festival 2008

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