Landmark TV Performances Illuminate 'Raisin in the Sun'

There are dreams that never die, suns that never set, and stars that never cease to shine.

While a strike-shaken TV industry wonders what it may become, "A Raisin in the Sun" arrives as glorious proof of what it still can be. Reuniting the stars of the 2004 Broadway revival, this thrilling three-hour ABC movie expands and energizes Lorraine Hansberry's classic play without losing any of its power or poetry, allowing a new generation to discover a great work of American art.

As on Broadway, the audience draw here is Sean Combs, making an impressive dramatic stretch in the role originated by Sidney Poitier. But as befits a play set within an inner-city matriarchy, the heavy lifting is done by three remarkable women: Sanaa Lathan, Audra McDonald and Phylicia Rashad, who became the first African-American ever to win the Tony for best actress in a play.

Line up more awards. As widowed family-head Lena Younger, Rashad gives not just the best performance of the season so far, but one that ranks with the best of all time. Rashad's Lena is both singular and universal, completely specific and yet able to encompass every strong woman who has ever fought to hold her family together against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Skillfully adapted by Paris Qualles and sensitively directed by Kenny Leon, "Raisin" is set in motion by Lena's $10,000 insurance check. Her son Walter Lee (Combs) wants the money for a business deal, while her daughter (Lathan) wants it for tuition. But Walter's wife, Ruth (McDonald, a warm, shining wonder in the role created by Ruby Dee), wants to buy a home, and Lena agrees. The house she buys, though, is in an all-white suburb, which earns the family a politely threatening visit from a representative of the neighborhood association (John Stamos).

Though the play's structure may seem dated, the message is not, and it goes far beyond a call for tolerance or integration. The real and still-current battle that drives "Raisin" is the fight between Lena's desire for safe and secure domesticity and Walter's yearning for wealth and independence, a clash of American dreams. The tragedy is not that Walter's dream is misplaced, but that discrimination has left him ill-equipped to pursue it.

As terrific as the three women are, the movie would not have been made without Combs and would not work as well without him. He's still learning as an actor; he has a tendency to go dead in quiet moments. But his charisma and a sense of barely contained anger make the play feel even more current and may allow it to speak more clearly to young audiences.

And this is a movie that deserves to be seen and heard. Shimmering like a light in the darkness, "A Raisin in the Sun" is a moving reminder of the roads we've traveled and a rallying call for the journey ahead.

That's reason to be proud all around.