I still remember the sore elbows I got snuggled up to our fuzzy 19-inch to watch three nights of Alex Haley's "Queen." That was 15 years ago.
On Monday, Feb. 25, a new generation of 12-year-olds will suffer their boney joints watching ABC's "world premiere movie event" — Lorraine Hansberry's "A Raisin in the Sun." The all-star Broadway cast was revived, including Phylicia Rashad, Sean Combs (a.k.a. Diddy), Audra McDonald and Sanaa Lathan. Kenny Leon directed.
Will it be worth the pain?
Those small screen "events" are supposed to create magic, give testimony, shift the zeitgeist, define a generation. These days, television "events" are more than rare—they're nearly extinct. This year's "Raisin" is far from a missing link.
Most are familiar with the timeless story of the Younger family. It's 1959 on the South Side of Chicago, and matriarch Lena (Rashad) has a big decision to make: A $10,000 life insurance check is coming and everyone's dreams are dangling on its zeros.
Son Walter Lee, played adequately enough by Combs, wants to "invest" in a liquor store with partners-in-folly Bobo and Willie Harris (slick Willie, they call him). Sister Beneatha (Lathan) wants to "make a difference" as a doctor. Walter's wife Ruth, played to steely perfection by McDonald, wants peace.
The three-hour-long tale offers hard-fought, even tired, battles—women versus men, mother versus son, husband versus wife—that still resonate with the modern-day African American experience. The family is led by a woman. The daughter is the one attending college. The son is anxious, hungry and desperately entrepreneurial.
But how much do these themes add to, subtract from, or divide the current conversation on black family life—if there is such a conversation? Don't we already know the black female is the mule of the world? Or do we need reminding?
"Raisin" could easily be renamed "The Women." In one of Combs' best turns as Walter Lee (the role first played to perfection by Sidney Poitier) he sums up the film's most prominent clashes. Failing to convince the level-headed Ruth to hop on the South Side Liquors bandwagon, Walter Lee resorts to insults. "Says just what's wrong with women today — don't know how to build your man up, make 'em feel like they can be somebody, like they can do something."
Ruth quickly shoots back, "You know not all women are like that," she says, still dressed in her bathrobe. "Just like there's some men who actually do something."
When Walter Lee calls the Younger women "the world's most backwards race of women" the phrase loses its nip. He meant it as an insult, but it sounded like praise. This constant push and pull between the black man and his women (mother, sister, wife) is nothing new.
"I'm a volcano," Walter Lee shouts while holding a cold beer. "I'm a giant. A giant surrounded by ants. Ants can't even understand what a giant's talking about." The ants here, of course, are his women — Sister Beneatha who feels superior to him, Wife Ruth who feels apart from him, and Mother Lena who feels wary of him.
The women here seem less at odds with one another than in the 1961 film. We're all familiar with the legendary scene in which Lena (then played by Claudia McNeil) slaps the Holy Spirit into Beneatha, a trendy atheist (then played by Diana Sands), compelling her to repeat the words "In my mother's house there is still God" through hot tears and clenched teeth.
The message in that scene is more muddled in the latest "Raisin," where McDonald's Ruth looks on from her permanent post at the ironing board between Rashad and Lathan. While McNeil's Lena ruled absolutely, Rashad's Lena seems to dodge the inevitable insurgency.
Toward the end of the film, Lena finally concedes, and hands Walter Lee an envelope filled with money. "You the man of the house. You the head of the family now," she says.
Is she playing Russian Roulette with the family's dreams, or is she endowing them?
The quick dramatic beat between those two extremes — failure or hope — makes "Raisin" work as an elective television experience. But it's still not an event.
Helena Andrews is a regular contributor to The Root.