A Raisin in the Sun Producer Craig Zadan on the Movie's Gay Subtext

02/25/2008 06:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Let's be honest: most people will probably tune into ABC's drama A Raisin in the Sun tonight to see if Sean "P-Diddy" Combs can act. He can. In fact, the entire cast is achingly brilliant. See the excellent New York Times review here.

And with the 40th anniversaries of the assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy coming up - and the new "I have a dream" candidate Barack Obama trying to turn a political campaign into a movement for social change, many might think that the dream deferred -- the "raisin" of the title from black gay poet Langston Hughes' poem "Harlem" ("What happens to a dream deferred?/Does it dry up/like a raisin in the sun?") -- is outdated.

It's not. Racism is still rampant, the film's gay co-producer Craig Zadan points out. So is homophobia and the closet -- one of the subtexts of the original play written by African American lesbian Lorraine Hansberry.

Lorraine Hansbery "is one of the most famous lesbian playwrights who nobody knew was a lesbian," Zadan told me by phone as he drove to a press conference with Combs at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

Of course, Hansberry is now famous among African American LGBT people. But in her time -- especially in 1959 when Raisin in the Sun became the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway -- Hansberry qualified as the kind of woman artist Virginia Woolf talked about in her famous 1928 Cambridge lecture, "Shakespeare's sister."

All these elements -- racism, sexism, and homophobia -- occurred to Zadan and his producing partner Neil Meron (also openly gay) at Storyline Entertainment when they saw the revival of A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway with the same cast that's in the ABC movie. The producing partners have a long history of consciously using diversity in theme and casting.

Zadan explained the process by which they brought the play to television and Hansberry's gay subtext.

Neil and I have been drawn to movies that fall into three distinct groups: One is musicals, which we took upon ourselves to try to bring back when nobody was doing musicals; the second is bio-pics. When no one was doing bio-pics, we on TV, we did Judy Garland, the Beach Boys, the Reagans -- a whole lot of biographical things; and the third -- social and political films like Serving in Silence, What Makes a Family, and Wedding Wars, which are gay and lesbian stories. We're always developing more, looking for more social/political stories.

We went to see the revival when it opened a couple of years ago and we were just blown away by it. We realized that Sean Combs made it feel contemporary. The audience was compromised of the youngest people we've ever seen at a play. The place was packed with Caucasians and African Americans -- but kids and families. We'd never seen an audience like that ever on Broadway for a straight dramatic play. And they went nuts. They went to see it -- maybe -- because of Diddy -- but they came away having had that experience of this piece with that cast. And we were determined at that point that we wanted to turn it into a movie.

Luckily our deal is at Sony and luckily Sony [Columbia Pictures} made the original Raisin in the Sun with Sidney Poitier. So we lucked out. We went to them and everybody embraced it. And then we went to Steve McPherson [president of ABC Entertainment] and we didn't even get the words out of our mouth and he jumped up and said, 'Go make it now.' He immediately understood how important the story was and with that cast. He said, 'You get that cast -- go make the picture.

Unfortunately it took us two years because those actors -- Audra McDonald, Phylicia Rashad, Sanaa Lathan, Sean Combs -- are so busy with plays and movies and concert tours. It took us two years to coordinate schedules.

Finally, last year they all said to us, 'OK, we have between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve -- so we'll give you that.' We were freaking out because we were still shooting Hairspray, we were about to start shooting The Bucket List -- so we said, 'You know what -- it's really hard to pull this off right now. But we're not even going to think about it. We're just going to pull it off.

So we immediately set up production -- in many cases working seven days a week -- because we had to finish in that tiny, tiny window.

We made it happen in Toronto because we were finishing Hairspray In Toronto and we couldn't leave the city.

We finished the movie and then Neil and I edited it very quickly. But ABC said, 'You know what -- this is too important. We can't throw this on the air. Work with us -- be patient and let's give it a coveted time slot.'

And everybody was like, 'We want to put it on now.' They said, 'No -- trust us.' We said, 'OK.' They basically said, 'We think we should hold it until next year and put it on the night after the Oscars so we can promote it during the Academy Awards,' which is of course the largest audience watching ABC all year. So we used last night as a platform and we're on tonight.

But Neil and I -- when we saw it we said, 'This is very, very important. The truth of the matter is -- when we look at things -- every movie we do -- no matter what the subject matter is -- we go to the universal theme of family. We always go to that because if the movie is about family, then any audience can relate to it. We feel that this one -- more than just about any of them -- is about what happens to a family falling apart and disintegrating and pulling itself back together again.

We felt it was a very important African American story, a very important story about racism. Some people said, 'Oh -- this is 1959.' And we said, "Yes -- but what about Michael Richards [profusely using the "n-word" during a stand up routine at the Laugh Factory in Los Angeles} and Don Imus [who got briefly kicked off the air for calling the Rutgers Women's Basketball Team "napped headed hos"] and what about Jena -- that town where they hung nooses? So everything going on around us was all about blatant racism.

And then on top of all that -- out of the blue -- came Barack Obama, which we didn't anticipate. So we felt there was this amazing story that needed to be told today because racism is rampant in America and needs to be dealt with -- and dealt with not standing on a soapbox preaching but by moving people to tears and breaking their hearts - that's how you reach people.

But that jumps off to another point: whenever you deal with an issue of minorities, you also deal with gays and lesbians -- and especially here with a play by an African American lesbian playwright -- it became very, very important to us to tell this story.

We think there are some subliminal things going on that if you watch the movie. You get into these people's lives and you are as moved as we were by their story and by the actors. We think people will get it since it deals with minorities, it deals with race, it deals with prejudice, it deals with everything in the world today.

What I found particularly interesting was that beyond racism are other prejudices. You have everybody trying to hush up about the fact that [Hansberry] was a lesbian playwright. I think part of it comes from the fact that she had a heterosexual marriage. I'm sure it was a loving relationship and I'm sure they cared about each other a great deal. But the point is -- when that marriage came to an end, we found out where her heart was.

{Hansberry] wrote a lot of lesbian political stories in different publications and at that time signed it "LH." So she was willing to write constantly about the gay and lesbian cause but at the same time, she was never willing to sign her real name to it. Talk about the closet - I think that's amazing.

It is very, very important that people understand that you can tell different kinds of stories and they do related to gay and lesbian issues -- especially when you know the people behind them.

Lorraine Hansberry was clearly writing from the gay experience. The character that Senaa Lathem plays is the Lorraine Hansberry character. She represents Lorraine. If you look at the ideas and you look at what she had to say and how outspoken she is and how she's breaking traditions and breaking rules and being rebellious and experimenting -- you can look at that very clearly as her exploring her lesbianism, from a political point of view. Even though she's talking about other things, beneath the surface you can see what she's really talking about. So I think if you watch the movie and you know that Senaa Lathem is playing Lorraine Hansberry's character, expressing Lorraine's point of view -- you then start to see the ramifications of the gay and lesbian experience screaming to come to out.

She was so prescient that she was telling us about the Women's Liberation Movement, the gay and lesbian movement and the civil rights movement -- before these movements happened. She was a young girl. How could somebody 27 years old have the insight to understand -- it's one thing if she wrote a trilogy or if she wrote 10 plays -- but in one play to express all of those issues and values? It's astonishing.

And we're so use to writing where every so often there is a great line. Not in this - almost every line counts. And if you understand the subtext of what she's really saying, you realize how political and powerful her message is. So any gay or lesbian viewer would get so much out of it and understand how deeply and how powerful and how emotional and how ahead of her time she was; it took a lesbian to tell the world that the world was changing.

A Raisin in the Sun airs tonight on ABC from 8:00pm to 11:00pm Eastern.