Updated January 23, 2018: Watch the full film online here.
On January 11th the DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago hosted an advance screening of the new documentary Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, sponsored by WTTW, the DuSable Museum, and the Goodman Theatre.
Prior to the screening the documentary's filmmaker, Tracy Heather Strain, sat down for an interview with Yvonne Welbon. "Lorraine saw art as a way to connect people to ideas," Strain explained. Being that Hansberry was a native Chicago’s South Side, she discussed the conscious decision to include an authentic representation of Chicago in the film. Music by Chicago artist, Oscar Brown Jr. is included in the film as well as commentary from Black Chicago historian Dr. Timuel Black.
Among the screening's attendees were a number of Hansberry's nieces and nephews—whose parents provided inspiration for the characters Walter Lee and Ruth in Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Michele Galvin Jones, a descendant of Harriet Tubman.
Hansberry died at the young age of 34, following a battle with pancreatic cancer. While her first play and most well-known work, A Raisin in the Sun (1957), is considered one of the most prolific plays of the 20th century, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart dives into her life's work of activism and contributions to the civil rights movement beyond her writing. Her commitment to being an artist that was active and engaged in the community tied directly to her deep Chicago roots and the long-standing ideals of her family, impressed upon her at an early age.
Lorraine’s father Carl Augustus Hansberry journeyed to Chicago in what is known today as the great migration. He would soon become a prominent figure on the South Side, building his wealth as a real estate broker and landlord, renting kitchenette apartments to Black families that had made their way north in search of greater opportunity.
Mr. Hansberry was also a political activist, working against redlining practices and restrictive covenants in the city based upon race. At the time, restrictive covenants were being used to prevent Black Chicagoans from moving east of what was known as the “Black Belt” of the city, into the surrounding white neighborhoods. After buying and moving his family into a beautiful home in the Woodlawn neighborhood (an area restricting African Americans via covenants), a court battle ensued. As a result, the Hansberry family became targets of racial violence that impacted their daily lives—and Lorraine never forgot it.
In 1940 Hansberry v. Lee went to the Supreme Court. With the support of the NAACP, the Hansberry's were victorious. The ruling stated that in this case, racially restrictive covenant could not be upheld. As a result, all future cases being argued against African Americans moving into the Woodlawn neighborhood would have to be heard on a case by case basis. The Court's decision was significant, opening approximately 500 homes surrounding the crowded Black Belt to African Americans for purchase. Housing discrimination based on race, religion or national origin would not be completely outlawed until the 1968 Civil Rights Act (also known as the Fair Housing Act, passed one week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) was enacted. A Raisin in the Sun in many ways echoes the Hansberry family’s experience with this case.
Hansberry's FBI File makes it evident that her cultural influence and passion for racial justice was of interest to the United States government, first coming onto their radar as a journalist at Paul Robeson's Freedom newspaper in 1950.
In 1959 A Raisin in the Sun became the first play by an African American woman produced on Broadway and was later adapted for the now classic film. While Lorraine left an indelible mark on the future of Black theatre, she also contributed greatly to civil rights, women’s rights and LGBT rights—which is emphasized in the documentary by commentary from Harry Belafonte, Amiri Baraka, Ruby Dee, Louis Gossett Jr., Sidney Poitier, and others. Her memory and legacy would go on to inspire the creativity of other artists, including the 1969 song "To Be Young, Gifted and Black" by her friend Nina Simone, which became an anthem of Black pride.
With the vast amounts of primary and secondary research collected over the seven years that the documentary was in development, Strain hopes to create new Lorraine Hansberry resources such as a children's coloring book, graphic novel, and a new documentary on Black theatre prior to A Raisin in the Sun.
In support of the documentary's premiere, the Goodman Theatre will host a series of events, including film screenings and staged readings, celebrating Hansberry's life.
Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart premieres Friday, January 19th at 10 pm EST / 9 pm CST as part of the PBS American Masters series (check your local PBS listings). Learn more about the film and watch the trailer here.
Further Reading: A Raisin in the Sun—Lorraine Hansberry