A few moments ago, I watched A Raisin in the Sun. I have made a commitment to watch all of the Oscar movies, and I felt sure that Raisin had been one of them. When I checked into the movie’s ratings, I noted that the movie received a 100% rating; yet, it won no Oscars. Something’s wrong about that.
Sidney Poitier certainly was not the problem. As usual, Poitier’s performance was 100%, too.
And Claudia McNeil certainly did not drop the ball in her portrayal of Poitier’s mother in the film.
“In my mother’s house, there is still God.”
I have said this before, and I am repeating myself here. The Oscar Awards are not always indicative of which movies during a year are of top quality. Sometimes other things enter the picture.
A Raisin in the Sun was released in 1961–the year of the Freedom Rides, and the year that buses were bombed. In 1961, the University of Georgia was integrated. and Herbert Lee was murdered in Mississippi.
In 1961, African-Americans were not even allowed to watch movies in the same room as the whites, and water fountains were labeled as colored or white.
I was 11-years-old in 1961, and I well remember the signs and their segregations.
In 1961, A Raisin in the Sun was probably a bit too fresh–a bit too prophetic to win or even be nominated for an Oscar, but it was still crucially important.
In 1962, the National Guard was camped on the lawn of the University of Mississippi–to protect James Meredith as he integrated the school.
James Meredith integrates Ole Miss
In 1963, Peter, Paul, and Mary sang for the Civil Rights Movement in Washington D.C.
In 1968, seven years after the release of A Raisin in the Sun, Martin Luter King was assassinated in Memphis. I graduated from high school that year, and I began college at the University of Missississippi that year, too. Ole Miss is just a few miles South of Memphis, and I grew up just a few miles North and West of there.
I grew up during the Civil Rights Movement, and I am absolutely aware of how difficult integration was for this country–and not only for the South. Unfortunately, the Oscars are not immune to social issues like integration. While A Raisin in the Sun did not win any Oscars, it did begin to pave the way for other important films, i.e. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Lilies of the Field, Roots, the Color Purple, etc., and it prepared the world to receive an entirely different way of life. In a way, it won an award of its own kind.
A few weeks ago, I watched the Oscar Award Presentations on television, and I thought that Chris Rock’s continuous ranting about the plight of the African-American actors was completely ineffective. If anything, I felt that his words and actions set the movement back a bit. In writing, there is an excellent rule of thumb: “Show, Don’t Tell.”
Chris Rock forgot that important tip. He tried to tell–to tell the American people “off.” Movies like A Raisin in the Sun Show–they are the key to the progress that America has made toward Civil Rights. There is a great deal of difference between telling someone what they should or should not do and enabling them to feel that for themselves.
There are other truths in A Raisin in the Sun, too. The movie is also about missed opportunities. Walter Lee feels trapped. He asks his mother why she had moved from the South and he further asked why he had not been allowed to get on the train and to leave, too, when he became an adult.
It is about the importance of having a piece of land and a home that belongs to himself. The tragic twist is that the house and land purchased were in a white neighborhood, and yes, that would have been poorly received in every part of America, in 1961. To illustrate that point, A Raisin in the Sun is not about the South. The Northerners did not want block busters, either.
When Walter Lee loses his father’s insurance money, a movie about social justice becomes Oscar-worthy, and when the African boyfriend proposes that they take lemons and turn them into lemonade–that he and the sister relocate to Nigeria, a greater truth is spoken. We make plans, but we do so with limited resources. Often, we do not even dare to wish for the great things that might be just beyond our imaginings.
In an attempt to recover his losses, Walter Lee almost sold his soul but he did not. A Raisin in the Sun is not a Cinderella rags-to-riches fairy tale. It is a fine weaving of one family’s account of their efforts to endure, in spite of adversity. The fact that Raisin lifts the veil that had hidden the humanity of African-Americans is important. It is important for the Civil Rights Movement, but the story and the acting are what are deserving of an Oscar. Those elements had little to do with Civil Rights–the Civil Rights issues were superflous.
I agree that A Raisin in the Sun is worthy of its 100% rating. I disagree that it was not Oscar-worthy. If that movie had been released forty years later, I dare say that it would have swept an entire shelf of Oscar awards.
©Jacki Kellum March 13, 2016