When Lorraine Hansberry’s now classic A Raisin in the Sun premiered on Broadway in 1959 (the first play by a Black woman to do so) actress Ruby Dee recalls marveling how it “opened a new chapter in theater, that included Black people.” While most may know the widely studied and performed A Raisin in the Sun as their only reference point for Hansberry, the documentary Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart makes abundantly clear that there is much more to know about the author. The filmmakers combed archives worldwide and had unprecedented access to Hansberry’s personal papers, archives, home movies and photos in order to present her complex life. Like her writing and activism, the film draws attention to some of the most outstanding issues of the mid-Twentieth Century and beyond (racial justice, colonialism, feminism, class divisions, sexuality) and addresses the role of artists and intellectuals in bringing them to center stage.
Hansberry was born in 1930 in Chicago into a well-to-do family of Southern migrants. Her father Carl ran a real estate business and was the plaintiff in an historic and successful housing discrimination case. The family’s move into a white neighborhood in the 1930s was met with violence and this experience was thought to inform Lorraine’s writing of A Raisin in the Sun. During the nascent Cold War years, she joined the Communist Party and associated groups and later became a staff member at Freedom newspaper, co-founded by Paul Robeson. She soon began writing full time when she and her husband moved to New York’s Greenwich Village. Their contacts from the progressive Left ultimately proved helpful in finding backers for A Raisin in the Sun.
Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart sheds valuable light on all aspects of the play, including the daunting challenge of securing investment and a venue for this production about a working class Black family, the casting process, artistic debates and finally its public reception. The film features interviews with the play’s original cast members, Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Louis Gossett, Jr. and Glynn Turman, director Lloyd Richards,producer Phil Rose, supporter Harry Belafonte as well as writer Amiri Baraka along with excerpts from the 1961 Hollywood movie.
The play emerged during the burgeoning modern Civil Rights Movement. Leveraging her increased prominence, Hansberry, along with a circle of artist/activist friends such as James Baldwin and Nina Simone, became a fierce advocate. She particularly admired the more militant youth sector such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). She raised funds for SNCC and wrote the text for their book, The Movement.
The film reveals how central feminism was to her ideas and boldly acknowledges (using her diary entries) her same gender relationships and private lesbian identity before the emergence of the gay rights movement.
When she died in 1965 from cancer at the early age of 34, she left behind several unfinished plays and other projects which promised to enrich our cultural landscape. One wonders how public discourse would have been different if she had survived to opine on the important longstanding and current social issues through her literary works as well as in her role as a leading public intellectual. Princeton professor Imani Perry comments in the documentary that Hansberry has "left us a road map for how to think about our society as we try to pursue something deeply egalitarian and sensitive and recognizes people at every level of who they are."
The documentary's title comes from Hansberry's belief that “one cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world.”
For more on Lorraine Hansberry, Beacon Press has released the multi-dimensional and illuminating biography: Looking for Lorraine by Princeton professor Imani Perry.
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"Introduces the world to the radical Lorraine Hansberry in all of her dynamism situating her within her time and as a vanguard of it. This film will be of great use to teachers, students, and anyone interested in mid-twentieth century history or the history of the Civil Rights Movement."
Soyica Diggs Colbert, Georgetown University
"This well-made and scored film presents the extraordinary life of “Young, Gifted and Black” revolutionary artist and civil rights activist Lorraine Hansberry. Experience her powerful mind and voice during the decade when America awakened to liberation."
Jennifer DeVere Brody, Stanford University
"The documentary also wrestles directly with her sexuality, rather than avoid or allude to Hansberry’s same-sex relationships (the way some recent documentaries on James Baldwin and Nina Simone have). Her lesbianism was a source of conflict and comfort and helped shape her feminist politics."
Salamishah Tillet, New York Times
"All facets of Lorraine Hansberry’s public life, private romances and early death are on view in this beguiling, illuminating and perfectly assembled documentary."
Dwight Brown, The Huffington Post
"So brilliantly effective — reviving interest in an unjustly under-appreciated American icon! An ambitious and stimulating look at one of the 20th century’s towering playwrights,,intellectuals and artists! Bravo!!"
Michael Eric Dyson, Georgetown University
“Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart gives us Lorraine Hansberry in all of her feminist, queer, anti-racist and transnational complexity. What Tracy Heather Strain has achieved is nothing short of a gift."
Roderick Ferguson, University of Illinois-Chicago
“A gorgeous visual love letter, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart matches Hansberry, in its brilliance, honesty, and vision. This is the Lorraine that we so desperately need now.”
Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original
"This well documented program introduces American-literature students and others to the classic play and its author. Recommended for young adult audiences."
Candace Smith, Booklist
****. Highly recommended! Editor's Choice.
“Makes Hansberry and her work come to life for my mentee playwrights. It's so difficult to find a documentary that really makes the transitory world of the stage come alive, but the filmmakers managed to capture that fleeting brilliance. I am now ordering copies for the universities where I teach so that the schools have them on-hand for the future.”