Take a Giant Step. A Raisin in the Sun
The U.S. black family film

by Mark A. Reid

from Jump Cut, no. 36, May 1991, pp. 81-88
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1991, 2006


The earliest black family films were produced by independent black producers who used African American writers for the scripts. These black writers used their own creative talents in write original screenplays, or they made film adaptations from black literary works. For example, the Frederick Douglass Film Company produced THE COLORED AMERICAN, OR WINNING HIS SUIT (1916) which was written by Rev. W.S. Smith, a black Baptist minister. THE COLORED AMERICAN resembled Lincoln family films because the film dealt with a black hero proving his worth, and the plot ends with the him returning to his black family. In May 1917, the Frederick Douglass Company premiered a Paul Laurence Dunbar film adaptation of his short story, "The Scapegoat." The production of THE SCAPEGOAT pioneered film adaptations of African American literary works.

The Lincoln Motion Picture Company's THE REALIZATION OF A NEGRO'S AMBITION (1916) and THE TROOPER OF COMPANY K (1916) were written by Noble M. Johnson the company's president and male lead. This motion picture company was probably one of the first African American companies to have its president and featured actor, Noble Johnson, write their scenarios. Oscar Micheaux wrote a screen adaptation of his first novel for his first film, THE HOMESTEADER (1919). Micheaux also adapted Charles Chesnutt's 1900 novel, The House Behind the Cedars (1923).

These black independent film producers established the practice of employing black writers, actors and directors to write scenarios. This practice allowed black film productions to express the black perspective in both their aural and visual languages as well as their production strategies.


Hollywood did not produce black family films written by African American writers until the late 1950s. Between the 1940s and late 1950s, legal, industrial, and social conditions opened a way for these films. In 1948, the Supreme Court, in the United States v. Paramount Pictures, et al. forced five major Hollywood producers (Paramount Pictures, Twentieth Century-Fox, Warner Brothers, Loew's, Inc. (MOM), and RICO Corporation) to divest themselves of the movie houses that they controlled. This divestiture reduced studio control over the ever-increasing number of independent producers who might want to produce a black family film. In addition, movie theaters could take independent (non-Production Code Administration) films once the theaters were separated from studios. Michael Conant writes,

"In 1946 it is estimated that the number of independent producers reached seventy. The Census of Manufactures reported one hundred theatrical film-producing companies in 1947…By 1957 the number of full-time producers operating as independents was estimated at 165. In addition, many independent production firms have been organized solely to make one or two pictures or primarily to make shorter television films; they enter theatrical film production only secondarily and if a special opportunity arises)."[1][open notes in new window]

In 1952, the Court ruled in Burstyn v. Wilson that movies had the same First Amendment rights as those held by print media. This decision affected at once Hollywood's self-censorship organ, the Production Code Administration (PCA). The Code which

"had been a barrier to the entry of independent producers, found its power of enforcement markedly reduced by the divorcement."[2]

In 1956, the Production Code was revised to fit its suggested purpose

"of barring obscenity rather than its monopoly purpose of barring novelty."[3]

By 1958, the Code had been liberalized, the number of independent producers increased, and novelty of theme and treatment became a possible reality in Hollywood:

"The effect of the decline in total output of the majors was to create excess capacity in the form of idle studios and underutilized systems of nationwide distribution exchanges. Paradoxically, the very firms that had created the barriers to independent production in the prewar period were by 1950 vying to lease studio space to independent producers and to distribute films for them."[4]

A third important postwar condition, the growth of the television market and its ability to become a major source of family entertainment, forced the film industry to create fins for special markets. In addition to the film industry's new interest, the new "legal freedoms provided filmmakers with opportunities to explore themes, visual representation, and dialogue that had been off-limits for the family film, economic factors provided the necessity [for liberalizing the Code]…With the enormous growth after World War II, television challenged and then in a short time completely usurped" Hollywood as the major producer of family entertainment.[5] Television also became a major outlet for Hollywood films.

Still another liberalizing effect on postwar Hollywood was the society's changing residential demographics. Most of the more profitable first-run theaters were once located in the downtown area of big cities. During the postwar period of suburbanization, the white lower-middle and middle-class families moved out of large cities and away from the first-run theaters.

"Financed by easy money at low interest rates, by sympathetic federal mortgage policy and often directly by the Veterans Administration, millions of [white] families moved out of city tenements. The western frontier had been closed by 1890…But now, after 1945, it seemed that U.S. society had found a new frontier in the suburbs."[6]

Consequently, Hollywood needed to produce films that would attract the African American movie-going audiences who remained in the city and frequented the first-run movie theaters.

In contrast to independent Hollywood producers who seemed to welcome the controversy of black films, major Hollywood producers tended to finance works that used popular genres to soften most serious treatments of black socio-cultural experiences which might alienate a white audience.[7] Thus, film studios chose black-oriented family films rather than black-oriented crime thrillers because the family concept was a more palatable genre for the broadest of audiences.

These legal decisions, industrial changes and socio-economic realities temporarily pressured Hollywood independent producers and major studios into producing black family films for first-run, metropolitan exhibition houses. Simultaneously other forces encouraged Hollywood to accept blacks as scenarists for such films in the late Fifties.


The opportunities for black screenwriters resulted in part from Hollywood interest in film adaptations literary works and partly from its recognition of the popularity of black-authored literary works. Hollywood's preference for screen adaptations of popular works is evidenced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences creation of the Best Writing Award for the Best Adapted Screenplay in 1956. This move affected the subject matter and themes that Hollywood films dramatized, since

"the decline of original scripts in favor of films based on popular novels [and plays inextricably tied the larger studios to the increasing permissiveness of U.S. fiction."[8]

During the 1940s some novels by African Americans had become so popular that Hollywood decided to adapt them into films. In the 40s, however, Hollywood studies refused to hire black scenarists to write or adapt black literary works for the screen. Yet Twentieth Century-Fox, in 1947, adapted Frank Yerby's bestseller The Foxes of Harrow (1946); Colombia adapted, in 1949 and 1960 respectively, Willard Motley's Knock on Any Door (1947) and his Let No Man Write My Epitaph (1958); and MGM adapted Bright Road (1953), and Mary E. Vroman's short story entitled "See How They Run" (1951).

Moreover, black-oriented plays written by African Americans were becoming increasingly accepted by Manhattan playgoers and drama critics during the 1950s. In 1953, Louis Peterson's Take a Giant Step appeared on Broadway. Take a Giant Step was revived off-Broadway in 1956 and received critical acclaim. The off-Broadway Greenwich Mews Theatre produced William Branch's historical dramatization of John Brown and Frederick Douglass, In Splendid Error (1954). The Greenwich Mews also produced Alice Childress' satire on black stereotypes, Trouble in Mind (1957) as well as Loften Mitchell's A Land Beyond the River (1957) which dramatized the topic of school desegregation. In 1959, the most significant event of the decade for black theater occurred when Lorraine Hansberry earned the Critics Circle Award for A Raisin in the Sun.[9] But before the appearance of Raisin, black playwright Louis Peterson had prepared theater audiences and the film industry for the dramatization of an aspiring black family who was striving to define their sense of black selfhood.


Louis Peterson's TAKE A GIANT STEP (United Artists, 1959) is an example of the black family film that was written by a black but was produced by a mini-major studio, Forty years after Oscar Micheaux adapted his novel The Homesteader for the screen in 1919, black dramatist Louis Peterson (with white Julius L. Epstein) adapted his 1953 Broadway play for the screen. Julius J. Epstein, a former Warner Brothers contract writer, was co-scenarist with Peterson and co-produced the screenplay. Epstein was a prestigious Hollywood writer who had received an Academy Award (with his brother Philip and Howard Koch) for writing the Best Screenplay, in 1942, Casablanca (Warner).

The independent producing company of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster financed the production of TAKE A GIANT STEP. Organized in 1947 by Burt Lancaster and producer Harold Hecht, the company gained Hollywood's attention in 1955 with MARTY (United Artists), Paddy Chayefsky's screen adaptation of his play which had first appeared on a television program in 1953. The film won the Academy's Best Picture Award, Best Director Award (Delbert Mann), Best Actor Award (Ernest Borgnine), and Best Screenplay Award (Paddy Chayefsky). Undoubtedly encouraged by the reputation of scenarist Epstein and the past productions of Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, United Artists agreed to release GIANT STEP.[10]

Thus, GIANT STEP (Hecht-Hill-Lancaster, UA, 1959) was a cumulative result of several necessities of supply and demand:

  1. the increasing popularity and mainstream critical acceptance of black literary works,
  2. the low supply of film products and the high demand for novel "first-grade films,"[11]
  3. the independent producers who wished to fulfill this need (Hecht-Hill-Lancaster),
  4. the minor Hollywood distributors (UA) who wished to supply the demands of first-run theaters, and
  5. the first-run theaters whose white audiences had declined.[12]

However, the film and its producer Julius Epstein experienced many of the formidable problems that black-oriented films, especially family films, would encounter lathe succeeding years. These problems can be summarized as the limitations placed on the construction of the African American subject's racial consciousness, his/her sexuality and expressive use of language that is deemed profane.

In TAKE A GIANT STEP, Johnny Nash, a popular rock-and-roll singer, portrayed Spencer Scott, a black teenager growing up in a Northern white community. The film addressed problems Spencer encounters in white society and with his father Lem Scott, who refuses to empathize with Spence's frustrations, (Frederick O'Neal, a co-founder of the American Negro Theatre, played the father in the film as he bad done on Broadway.) The main racial problem for Spencer comes from his white teacher's interpreting black slaves as "too lazy" to fight for their emancipation. Spencer refutes his teacher's interpretation and is expelled from school. When his father upholds the teacher's right, Spencer is left without a parental figure to support him. It would seem that the film passively complied with the familiar aspects of the adolescent-parental-conflict subgenre of the family film. Spencer's heroism was at least one Afrocentric element that the film does not avoid regardless of the father's attitude toward the ignorant white teacher.[13] The film does not depict Spencer as a Coon nor a Tom, yet he must subordinate himself. His sublimation occurs after he has defied a white authority figure. Spencer does not merely represent an individual black adolescent.

Whether the U.S. film industry was ready to approve of Spencer's profanity became a major problem which momentarily forestalled the distribution of the film (it was similar to the record industry's refusal to distribute a recent "2 Live Crew" album and the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship guidelines which censor "unacceptable" forms of creative expression). A Variety article, entitled "True-to-Life Cussing May Deny Seal for TAKE A GIANT STEP," reported that the film

"may be released sans [without] an MPAA Production Code seal, according to producer Harold Hecht, who prexies [is the president of the] company."

The article went on to report that if the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) did not give GIANT STEP a Production Code seal, Hecht-Hill-Lancaster (H-H-L) would limit the movie's release to "adult showings in first run situations and not worry about the seal." Hecht stated that the

"subject matter is so frankly handled — and with dialog[ue] carrying such words as 'hell,' 'bastard,' and 'prostitute' — that it's extremely doubtful that official sanction will be forthcoming."[14]

On 18 March 1959, United Artists had not agreed to distribute the H-H-L production; however, UA's non-exclusive releasing pact with Hecht's company suggested that there was a possibility that UA would release GIANT STEP.

In addition to the Hecht-Hill-Lancaster and United Artists non-exclusive releasing pact, Hecht believed that the Broadway opening of A Raisin in the Sun (11 March 1959) would "spark interest in GIANT STEP." Hecht's belief, perhaps, reflected his hope to recoup the film's estimated $300,000 production cost but this merely suggests one effect that Raisin had on Hecht's hopes for GIANT STEP.

Raisin's Broadway success had little effect on UA's promotion and distribution of GIANT STEP. United Artists, after having contracted to release GIANT STEP, failed to adequately promote the film. Consequently, Julius J. Epstein, in a 1960 Variety article, accused UA of insufficiently promoting his film. Epstein believed UA shelved GIANT STEP even though the film had been well received by Saturday Review of Literature and Newsweek critics.[15] Epstein added,

"United Artists is having no part of racial problem pictures...and TAKE A GIANT STEP is simply going to keep gathering dust and anonymity."

In the same Variety article, Harry Handle], president of Western Pennsylvania Allied Theaters Association, interpreted the situation from an exhibitor's point of view. He

"protested strongly as to [Epstein's]…remarks, declaring them unfair to United Artists. He said the picture had bookings around the country to do business. He mentioned Detroit as one of the bigger cities where it did very little at the box-office."

Hendel's further comments indirectly alluded to the fact that the film industry's inaction in the creation of a sufficient stable of recognized black movie stars:

"He also said that the picture and some bookings in this area [Pittsburgh and Philadelphia] but people just weren't buying unknown Negro performers as serious actors. He mentioned Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier as being the only Negroes strong enough to carry a picture at the b.o.."

The absence of a youth-oriented black star may have been the result of the U.S. film industry's current promotion of the white rebellious youth while ignoring the equally rebellious black youths who refused second-class citizenship status as their racial heritage. While many actors and actresses like Marlon Brando, James Dean, Sal Mineo, Natalie Wood and Anne Francis appeared in such 50s pictures as THE WILD ONE (Columbia. 1953), BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (MGM, 1955) and REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (Warner Brothers, 1955) and defined variations of the male and female type, African Americans were apparently limited to Sidney Poitier. Poitier was the adult-oriented star in NO WAY OUT (Fox, 1950) who also played a juvenile delinquent in BLACKBOARD JUNGLE (MGM, 1955).

During the same period, Harry Belafonte's sensuality both titillated and frightened his audiences. The industry, regardless of ISLAND IN THE SUN's (Fox, 1957) $8 million grosses at a production cost of $2,250,000, did not want a black Marlon Brando in 1957.[16] Robert H, Welker noted:

"…with ISLAND IN THE SUN... another giant step was taken — two interracial love affairs, frankly avowed, and including that ultimate trauma to many a white male psyche, a white woman in love with a colored man, and not merely ready but eager for his touch. Again, there were compromises: the unidentified British setting, the absence of full-blooded interracial kisses, the breakup of the colored man's affair through fear of prejudice."[17]

The importance of Welker's observation is to underline the limitations that the adult-oriented film posited on the black hero and white heroine in their dramatization of interracial intimacy. In recalling the fact that Oscar Micheaux had pioneered this effort in the early 20s, one can note the change in the dramatization of interracial intimacy in major-studio-produced films.

Hollywood also restricted the emergence of the youth and adult-oriented black protagonist because the U.S. film industry had not yet developed major black stars. During the 50s and early 60s, the black hero was limited to the contours of one actor — Sidney Poitier — who was forced to portray different roles, all of which rejected any interest in the opposite sex. One should understand that if Belafonte could not visually portray his sexuality in an adult oriented film like ISLAND IN THE SUN, then it would follow that Johnny Nash's portrayal of adolescent sexuality in the teen picture GIANT STEP would not be accepted, even if this love was directed at a black woman, since the mass audience could not accept black sexuality unless it was portrayed in a violent or primitive manner. Illustratingly, the verbalized dramatization of alleged interracial rape as in the court proceedings of SERGEANT RUTLEDGE (Warner, 1960) and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD (Universal, 1962), or the visual depiction of sexual hedonism within a black community as in CARMEN JONES (20th Century-Fox, 1954) and PORGY AND BESS (Columbia, 1959) were the sole outlets for black sexuality during this period in U.S. film history.

At this cultural moment, there did not exist any civil construction of black sexuality in Hollywood. This absence resulted from the limiting conditions, as above-mentioned, which the film industry had restructured and, thereby, changed certain aspects of the African American experience as represented in U.S. films. There were other factors, too, which inhibited the cinematic portrayal of African American life. Film exhibitors felt that black-oriented films should be booked chiefly in black populated areas, Theater managers elsewhere feared that booking black-oriented films would attract blacks and scare away the theater's regular white audience. But the major problem that GIANT STEP faced was the heroic ambition of Spencer Scott, who defied the ignorance of a northern white teacher and explored his awakening sexual desires. While GIANT STEP may not have been an interesting film for a mass audience, it did give African American youth an image of a defiant black kid who refused his ignorant white teacher's attempt to dehumanize the African American community. In this sense, GIANT STEP is a great leap toward freeing black heroism from Hollywood's social and economic restrictions.

GIANT STEP preceded A RAISIN IN THE SUN by six years in its Broadway production and by two years as a Hollywood independent feature film. The two plays dramatized the growing black consciousness among the younger generation of educated, northern-born, black teenagers. The films also portrayed residential integration by middle-class black families. There exist in both films the memories of a southern past held, for example, by the maid Christine in GIANT STEP and Lena Younger in RAISIN. In their formal structure and depiction of a three-generation black urban family, the two plays and their film adaptations continued the modernist black-family melodrama as developed by Theodore Ward in Big White Fog (1938). Ward's play represented black life during the Depression era. The play raised issues pertinent to this period: poverty, unemployment, racial discrimination and intra-racial rivalry between Marcus Garveyites and Communists, between black entrepreneurs and black laborers. It is important for any understanding of black-oriented film, to establish the dramatic sources and those issues in plays which Peterson and Hansberry undoubtedly read and were influenced by as they began writing, respectively, GIANT STEP and RAISIN.

The three plays and the two films exemplify a black literary movement in which pioneer writers struggled to develop their craft. They portrayed the psychology and sociology of black United States. These films illustrating the black family film genre also belong to this modernist movement. In the mid-Sixties, the Black Arts movement competed with this literary tradition (the modernist-integrationist text of Wards-Peterson-Hansberry) and established a black nationalist protest style epitomized by the dramas of LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) and the independent black films of the late 70s.[18] Thus, the film adaptations of GIANT STEP and RAISIN are profound reflections of African American modernist drama. RAISIN's place in film history is unique in that it is the first major-studio financed film whose screenplay was written solely by a black woman. Perhaps, it is the first U.S. film to articulate a holistic sense of feminism which celebrates a race, class and gender solidarity.


One of the earliest major examples of a black family film, that was written by a black scenarist and independently produced for a major studio, is the David Susskind and Philip Rose Production of A RAISIN IN THE SUN (Columbia, 1961). The film was directed by Daniel Petrie, and Lorraine Hansbersy adapted her original play for the screen.

David Susskind was interested in producing RAISIN because he had recognized that Raisin would be a financially and critically successful Broadway play. Variety's coverage of the play's pre-Broadway tryouts was one way in which Susskind may have developed an interest in Raisin. On 28 January 1959, Variety reported,

"Whatever the theatre shortage in Gotham may be, there must be room for A Raisin in the Sun. Already of solid substance in tryout form, the Lorraine Hansberry drama is loaded with smash potentials that should ripen into substantial Broadway tenancy."

Variety also heralded the fact that the play was "written, directed and acted by Negroes (with only one white role in the cast)." This mode of production, which entailed black control over three major aspects of dramatic art, was adopted by a mainstream U.S. entertainment institution, Broadway. Later, Hollywood would adopt a similar mode of production and, thereby, rejuvenate the black commercial film movement within the dominant structure of Hollywood studios.

Yet, the content of Raisin seemed to be far different from the content of plays made by whites about blacks, and Variety hinted at this:

"Raisin stands out as a shining example of talent potential if given the opportunity. The play should draw comment not only for the quality of its presentation but also for the depth of its message."

On 11 March 1959 Raisin opened on Broadway and received rave reviews. Two days later, Susskind wrote to Sam Briskin, Columbia Pictures vice-president in charge of production, and expressed his interest in a screen adaptation of Raisin. Susskind wrote:

"I have an inside track on this property as a consequence of my relationship with the author and her attorney. I think if you were to manifest real interest I could be granted a pre-empt right on the play for motion pictures at the best price offered by any competitor. At this writing, United Artists, Harry Belafonte, Metro-GoldwynMayer, Paramount, Fox, Halt-Bartlett and the Mirisch Brothers have expressed strong interest in purchasing the play)."[19]

At this early date, at least six major film producers were interested in a screen adaptation of the play. Susskind, writing in the same letter, recognized that the play presented "a warm, frequently amusing and profoundly moving story of Negro life in which, for once, the race issue is not paramount." He reassured Columbia v.p. Briskin that a film version which featured Sidney Poitier would attract an audience: "After THE DEFIANT ONES and the upcoming PORGY & BESS [Columbia, 1959), Sidney Poitier would be an important box office element."

By the 16th of March, Sam Briskin responded to Susskind's query stating that

"we [Columbia] have had this interest..since we first learned of the play and its pre-New York openings ..we have been approached by others both in and out of the studio."[20]

While Briskin's letter offered no response to Susskind's query, Variety reported on 1 April, 1959, that Columbia Pictures in association with David Susskind and Philip Rose had acquired the film rights to Raisin for $300,000. Susskind formulated the pre-production package which had been accepted by the studio. The package included himself and Philip Rose as co-producers. Hansberry as scenarist, Folder as featured star, and co-stars Claudia McNeil, Ruby Dee and Diana Sands. All that was left to negotiate was a director for the proposed film.

Martin Baum, the agent for RAISIN's black stage director Lloyd Richards and actor Sidney Poitier, initially suggested that Richards direct the film version. Columbia's vice-president of publicity and advertising Paul Lazarus discussed this possibility with Briskin, who inquired about Richards's CBS-TV videotape production of RAISIN. In a letter to Lazarus, Briskin reported that "when it got down to the last couple of days of rehearsal and the cameras were placed on the act he [Richards] seemed lost and CBS had to throw in a TV director to help him."[21] Thus, Columbia refused to give Lloyd Richards an opportunity to direct the film adaptation of the Broadway play which he now directed. Columbia studio executives were both cautious and backward. Columbia wanted to produce RAISIN because of its financial and critical success. Yet the studio executives did not want to make the same gamble that Broadway had made with Richards, one of the first blacks to direct a Broadway play. RAISIN finally received a director when Columbia executives approved Susskind's three picture contract with director Daniel Petrie (Variety,  20 July 1960).[22] Petrie had made one film THE BRAMBLE BUSH (Warner Bros. 1960), and this made him safe according to Columbia's standards.

While Columbia executives rejected Lloyd Richards as the director, they accepted Lorraine Hansberry as the scenarist. The initial reason that Columbia accepted Hansberry was RAISIN's status as a very hot property. The play's financial success gave Hansberry some leverage with Columbia's production chief, Sam Briskin. However, Briskin would not allow Hansberry any changes or additions to the screenplay which might threaten a mass audience. For example, Hansberry's first draft of the screenplay included Travis Younger having to bring 50 cents to school for special books about African Americans. The Columbia production executives Sam Briskin and Arthur Kramer and story editors William Fadiman and James Crow "agreed that this should be deleted from the screenplay," because it was not in the play. In addition, the Columbia production team "agreed that the addition of race issue material…should be avoided," because

"the introduction of further race issues may lessen the sympathy of the audience, give the effect of propagandistic writing, and so weaken the story, not only as dramatic entertainment, but as propaganda too."[23]

The production team also recommended that Beneatha's comment that "all Africans are revolutionaries today" be eliminated. They considered this as an example of "surplus in the race issue category and potentially troublesome to no purpose." They also argued that "Beneatha's dialogue about Africans needing salvation from the British and French could give the picture needless trouble abroad."[24]

The above suggested deletions are examples of the forms of censorship which occur in Hollywood-produced and distributed black commercial films. Since Hollywood films are produced for international mantels and most black commercial films tend to include social criticisms, most studios usually tone down criticism of their potential clients. In RAISIN's case, Columbia story editors and executives were quick to reject Beneatha Younger's Pan-African consciousness because their audience was not going to be limited to black Pan-Africanists. And white liberals like David Susskind and Philip Rose. Columbia's intended audience for RAISIN included British and French colonialist sympathizers, and Columbia's recommended deletions recognized their presence

The audience for whom a black-oriented film is made, though sometimes conjectural or abstract, does determine film content and form and thus affect black culture as represented in the film. When RAISIN or another family film is created, one must identify the studio's estimation of an "intended audience" and, therefore, describe and interpret Hollywood ideology. In the above instance, Columbia's media executives suggested three deletions in RAISIN's sociopolitical and cultural elements. The power to delete certain ideological expressions of black culture highlights the limitations of Hollywood productions for black scenarists and/or black directors who became involved in black commercial cinema. Film theoretician Gladstone Yearwood writes,

"If the practice [which I call the mode of production] of black cinema is derived from that of Hollywood, then it will serve to reproduce the unequal relations characteristic of blacks in society."[25]

However, when black artists are involved in the mode of production as writers and directors, then these films become not merely Hollywood films. The presence of blacks in positions of power forces the critic to reconceptualize terms and elaborate new definitions. This reconceptualization process involves defining variables of image control (as in Beneatha's Pan-African remarks which were not cut) and determining the studio's actual exercised power. I use the terms "colonized" to describe major studio productions, like King Vidor's HALLELUJAH (MGM, 1929), which are written or solely directed by whites. In addition, I use the term "neocolonized" to refer to major studio productions, like GIANT STEP and RAISIN, which are either written and or directed by black people. These two categories distinguish two forms of black-oriented major studio productions.

The critical success of the film adaptation of RAISIN is supported by the letters that Susskind received from people in the film and television industries. NBC Special Projects producer-director Robert K. Sharpe wrote,

"Perhaps more in this industry than any other we are judged by what we do when we have the opportunity to do it. In RAISIN IN THE SUN I feel not only have you been loyal to a property which could have been changed in so many ways for expediency, but you and your associates have produced an even more immediate and compelling piece than the play itself. It is indeed a credit to the movie industry and certainly will be to this country overseas."[26]

This congratulatory letter conveys the prestige value RAISIN had for its studio and the United States. However, the owner of William Goldman Theaters expressed an important reservation when he thanked Susskind:

"We are presently in consultation with Columbia as to the best approach ad-wise in order to garner the greatest possible return at the box office, I am sure you realize that the picture does present a problem from a selling standpoint due to its subject matter. It is imperative that we reach a mass rather than just a class audience."[27]

One way in which Columbia attempted to solve this problem as well as exploit what Robert Sharpe had discerned as "a credit to the movie industry," involved promoting RAISIN as a prestige picture. Columbia made RAISIN a United States entry in the 1961 Cannes Film Festival. Thereby, the film acquired additional international prestige, which was increased when the festival gave RAISIN a special award. In addition, the Screenwriters Guild nominated it for Best Screenplay of the Year Award that same year. This award and nomination helped increase Hollywood's acceptance of black writers and the black family film genre.

On January 10, 1962, Variety reported that RAISIN's domestic rentals amounted to $1,100,000.[28] Variety's estimated domestic rentals for RAISIN nearly equaled Columbia Pictures $1,500,000 production costs as reported by Ebony magazine.[29] RAISIN was neither a financial disaster nor a box-office success. RAISIN offered film studios proof that a low-budget, skillfully written black scenario about a black family that features well-known black performers can accrue prestige as well as return a moderate amount of money to its distributor.

The effect the film had on its audiences and film critics, however, did not equal the play's critical acclaim and popularity among both black and white theater audiences. One might interpret this imbalance as resulting from the different expectations that exist between theater and film audiences. Because major film productions like RAISIN require mainstream audience approval, while theater productions like Raisin can attract an interracial theater audience and still focus on topics which would offend moviegoers. Thus, it is understandable that the film had little effect on mainstream film audiences.

But RAISIN's failure among mainstream film audiences cannot explain why critics and scholars have ignored the historical importance that this film has to the women's studies as well as the progressive movement in U.S. film. This article cannot single-handedly remedy the present limitations of U.S. film scholarship and its continued neglect of serious critical attention to African American film — with the exception of the black male filmmakers who dominate most film scholarship's past and present fixation on black film. Shall we remain clinging to the name of the fathers and thereby ignore the mothers, like Hansberry?


1. Michael Conant, "The Impact of the Paramount Decrees," in The American Film Industry, ed. Tino Balio (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1976), p. 349.

2. Conant, p. 349.

3. Conant, p. 349.

4. Conant, p. 351.

5. Richard S. Randall. "Censorship: From The Miracle to Deep Throat," in The American Film Industry, p. 135.

6. Godfrey Hogdson, America in Our Time (New York: Random House, 1978), p. 51.

7. Dowdy, p. 72.

8. Andrew Dowdy. The Films of the Fifties: The American State of Mind (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1973), p. 90,

9. Genevieve Faber, Drumbeats, Masks, and Metaphor: Contemporary Afro-American Theatre (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1983). p. 13.

10. Tino Balio, "Sars in Business: The Founding of United Artists," in The American Film Industry, p. 149:

"United Artists was formed on February 5, 1919, as a distribution company to promote, exploit, and market motion pictures…A key feature of the distribution contracts stipulated that each picture was to be sold and promoted individually. Block booking was out. In no way could one United Artists release be used to influence the sale of another UA picture."

 11. In "The Impact of the Paramount Decrees" Conant writes.

"The anti-trust prohibition on all block booking in 1946 gave three minor distributors equal access with the five majors to nonaffiliated theaters. The decline in total picture output meant that even the affiliated theaters needed more first-grade films than the five majors could supply. These three minor distributors, a large part of whose films were relegated to the bottom half of a double feature program before 1946, found themselves able to bid for screen time in first-run theaters as equal of the five majors. United Artists was able to induce many of the new independent producers to distribute through it after it secured open competitive access to the first-rur screens of former affiliated theaters." (359)

12. Garth Jowett, Film, The Democratic Art  (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1976), p. 338:

"After…1946 when close to 1.7 billion dollars was paid by movie patrons to see their favorite entertainment, the fortunes of the U.S. motion picture went steadily downhill, with only the odd year in which the decline has been momentarily halted. In the fourteen year period between 1946 and 1960, the average weekly attendance dropped from ninety million to forty million. More important, the expenditures declined even more sharply, front one fifth to less than one-tenth of the available recreational dollars."

This is especially true of the 1956 and 1957 decline, which was the result of the release of pre-1948 Hollywood features to television. Also see Conant, pp. 361-362,

13. Barbara I. Molette, "Black Heroes and Afrocentric Values in Theatre," Journal of Black Studies 15.4 (June, 1985), p. 456:

 "A recurring phenomenon among Black people in the United States had generated a type of Black hero in theatre and art forms. This Black hero is an individual who has faced U.S. racism and sometimes without apparent overt provocation…gets tired of the racism. A decision is made and a stand is taken."

14. Variety, 18 March 1959, p.3.

15. Variety, 27 April 1960, p, 15. Also see Filmfacts 3 (6 Jan. 1961), pp. 331-312. These pagaes give a synopsis of GIANT STEP, production notes and reviews from Saturday Review and Variety. Arthur Knight writing for the Saturday Review wrote,

"No film to date — not even THE DEFIANT ONES, UA, 1958] — has attempted to describe so explicitly what it means to be a Negro in a white man's world The Scotts are neither poor, nor ignorant, nor exploited, nor am they subjected to any virulent, Faubus-like white supremacy. They live in the north, where prejudice is of a su[b]tler, more corrosive kind."

16. Mel Gussow, Darryl F. Zanuck Don't Say Yes Until I Finish Talking (New York: DaCapo Press, 1980), p. 191; also see Cobbett Steinberg, Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records (New York: Vintage Books. 1982). p. 22.

17. Robert H. Welker, "New Image of American Blacks," Variety, 1 Feb. 1961, pp. 7,19.

18. Darwin T. Turner, "Dramas of Black Life from 1953-1970," Iowa Review VI. 2 (Spring, 1975), pp. 82-99. Also see Clyde Taylor, "Black Films in Search of a Home," Freedomways 23.4 (1983), pp. 226-233.

19. David Susskind, Letter to Sam Briskin, 13 March 1959. This and all letters cited are in the David Susskind Papers. Wisconsin State Historical Society, Madison, Wisconsin.

20. Sam Briskin, Letter to David Susskind, 16 March 1959.

21. Sam Briskin, Letter to Paul Lazarus, 5 November 1959.

22. Harold Stem, Letter to Bernard Binibaum, 1 June 1960. This letter is from Petrie's attorney to Columbia Pictures' assistant treasurer-secretary Birmbaum.

23. Arthur Kramer, letter to David Susskind, 30 December 1959.

24. It should be noted that Africa, during the late 1950s and well into 1960, was witnessing the Mau Mau liberation movement against British colonialist in Kenya, the Algerian liberation movement against its French colonialists, and civil unrest in the Belgium Congo.

25. Gladstone L. Yearwood, "Toward a Theory of a Black Cinema Aesthetic," in Black Cinema Aesthetics, ad. Gladstone L. Yearwood (Athens, Ohio: Center for Afro-American Studies, Ohio Univ., 1982), p. 71.

26. Robert K. Sharpe, Letter to David Susskind, 21 March 1961.

27. William Goldnian, Letter to David Susskind, 3 April 1961.

28. Variety, "1961: Rentals and Potentials," 10 Jan. 1962, p. 58.

29. In "A RAISIN INTHE SUN," Ebony, April, 1961: "…with all obstacles overcome and the movie an accomplished fact, Columbia is eagerly awaiting the day when it can recoup its $1.5 million investment," p. 53.