When it was announced that a man professionally known as Diddy would be starring on Broadway in A Raisin In The Sun, it felt like a bad joke or the sort of comically preposterous project that would be name-dropped in a showbiz satire to spoof our culture's weakness for cheap gimmicks and the cult of celebrity. But Sean "Diddy" Combs has made a career out of proving skeptics wrong through hard work, savvy, chutzpah, and persistence. So it's an enormously pleasant surprise that Combs holds his own opposite a cast studded with Tony Award nominees in the TV movie adaptation of the Broadway production. It's even more surprising how well Lorraine Hansberry's venerable fixture holds up. Sure, it's corny, dated, preachy, stagy, and didactic, but it's also powerful, soulful, and graced with fine performances, even from superstars better known for prancing around in shiny suits than for delivering stirring monologues.
Phylicia Rashad stars as an iron-willed, church-going widow who comes into $10,000 via her husband's life-insurance policy. Her hard-drinking son Combs wants to use the money to start a liquor store, while forward-thinking daughter Sanaa Lathan wants to use it to go to medical school. But Rashad has big plans of her own.
As countless middle-school students can attest, the conflicts here are ideological as well as personal. The actors are burdened with having to represent abstract concepts as well as people: Lathan represents the future with her Afrocentrism and fearless upward trajectory, while Rashad symbolizes the tradition-bound past and its emphasis on God and family. Yet the actors breathe passion, life, and most importantly, anger into characters that could easily have come off as one-dimensional conduits for conflicting viewpoints. Combs connects powerfully to his striver's impotent rage and thwarted ambition, while Rashad carries the film as a beacon of strength who holds her family together through sheer force of will. The overstuffed plot machinery only begins to groan with the arrival of a miscast John Stamos as Stuffy Q. Whiteman (or Carl Lindner), the anxious bigot who offers the family money to refrain from moving into his neighborhood. At this point, the otherwise-solid television movie stops being about people and becomes a movie about integration. It's old-fashioned, but in the right hands, Hansberry's trusty old warhorse still has a lot of juice.
Key features: A standard-issue making-of documentary and a dull commentary by director Kenny Leon.