American History22 Nov 2008 12:21 pm
Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin In The Sun was a landmark of the American stage. It was, according to Hansberry’s immodest appraisal, the first play to depict American blacks as anything other than “cardboard cutout” stereotypes, and black audiences were particularly touched by the play’s “valid re-creation of life.” The phrase is James Baldwin’s, from his 1976 essay on film: “The Devil Finds Work.”
… in order for a person to bear his life, he needs a valid re-creation of that life, which is why, as Ray Charles might put it, blacks chose to sing the blues. This is why Raisin in the Sun meant so much to black people—on the stage: the film is another matter. In the theater, a current flowed back and forth between the audience and the actors, flesh and blood corroborating flesh and blood — as we say, testifying.
Famous as the play was, most people today know A Raisin in the Sun from the 1961 film version with Sidney Poitier. It won awards on its release, and, since 2005, it has been preserved in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Baldwin, as he suggested above, was not a fan. He felt that it had none of the warmth of the original, that the connection with the audience was completely severed: “The filmed play, which is, alas, all that Raisin is on film, simply stayed up there, on that screen. The unimaginative rigidity of the film locked the audience out of it. Furthermore, the people in Raisin are not the people one goes to the movies to see.” This was an unusually harsh verdict on a generally well-regarded film, but Baldwin’s views are nothing if not unique, to put it most charitably. One contemporary reviewer who counted himself an admirer of Baldwin wrote that The Devil Finds Work “teems with a passion that is all reflex, and an anger that is unfocused and almost cynical.” Baldwin couldn’t have been too surprised to see his collection of harsh judgments elicit some harsh judgments on the part of others.
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