Here’s a phrase I bet you thought you’d never read: Be prepared to fangirl over Lorraine Hansberry.
Friday at 9 p.m., PBS is airing Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, a documentary on Hansberry, whose life story has been collapsed into a criminally incomplete Black History Month tidbit. She wrote A Raisin in the Sun, and then Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee starred in the movie adaptation. At some point you watched it in middle school one February and didn’t pay much attention because it was in black and white. Or someone in your class cracked a joke about Poitier always being ashy.
But Hansberry was so much more. As Dee says in an interview in Sighted Eyes, “She seemed to know something about everything. She was a profound thinker.”
Thank goodness for director Tracy Heather Strain, who committed years to research and gathering the funds and archival footage necessary to make Sighted Eyes. The film transforms the memory of Hansberry from that polite woman who wrote one really important play to, as Hansberry’s friend Douglas Turner Ward deemed her, a “left-wing radical.”
I first saw Sighted Eyes at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, and about 20 minutes into it I scribbled in my notebook, “I think I love this woman.”
Hansberry had a wit that would have fit perfectly in today’s times, examining the traps of respectability politics and sending them up. Toward the end of her life, she bought a bucolic compound in a predominantly white area of upstate New York and winkingly named it Chitterling Heights. It was a nod, I think, to the efforts of her father to integrate Chicago’s then-white neighborhood of Woodlawn when she was 7. One of the formative experiences in Hansberry’s life was when a crowd gathered outside the Hansberry house in Woodlawn and someone threw a piece of mortar through their front window that just missed her head. What better way to throw a middle finger to white supremacy than to move into a neighborhood and give your house the blackest name you could think of?
Let’s not disregard the significance of A Raisin in the Sun. Hansberry crafted a play in 1959 about a family living on the South Side of Chicago that dared to show black people as, well, people and not buffoons, and she wrote it by drawing from her own experiences. But Hansberry was also a fearless agitator for civil rights, a feminist inspired by Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which she said “might very well be the most important work of this century,” a nervy woman who had mapped out a plan for her life by the age of 23 and miraculously stuck to it. She was privately queer and unapologetically black, and undoubtedly someone who would have transformed American culture even more had she lived past the age of 34 (she died of pancreatic cancer). Hansberry married Robert Nemiroff, a producer and champion of her work, in 1953. He left his white wife to be with her, and he was so devoted to her and in awe of her that even though they divorced in 1962, Nemiroff publicly served as Hansberry’s beard for many years.
Hansberry began her writing career as a journalist for the black newspaper Freedom, which was founded by Paul Robeson. She began writing about racism, sexism, poverty and imperialism, which caught the negative attention of one J. Edgar Hoover. Even as civil rights agitators were being identified and surveilled by the FBI, they persisted in their work, and Hansberry was one of them.
A group of black activists and artists assembled by James Baldwin to meet with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy included Hansberry, Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne. The May 1963 meeting was meant to pressure the Kennedy administration on civil rights or, at the very least, gain its sympathy.
Baldwin wrote about how frustrating the meeting was because rather than listen to what black Americans were enduring, particularly in the South, Kennedy became defensive, insisting that the Justice Department supported the civil rights movement. There was an undercurrent to his words intimating that those gathered who did not agree with him were ungrateful for the administration’s (frankly, rather meager) efforts.
Jerome Smith, a CORE activist who had been attacked and thrown in jail for protesting in Mississippi, bitterly recounted his experiences and refused to dress them up for the attorney general. He decried the Justice Department’s lack of action as activists were being beaten, arrested or worse.
“Mr. Kennedy, I want you to understand I don’t care anything about you and your brother,” Smith said. “I don’t know what I’m doing here, listening to all this cocktail party patter.”
Hansberry also refused to cower before the face of the American government. She didn’t worry about alienating what the group hoped could be its most powerful ally. Instead, Sighted Eyes recounts, she, too, gave Kennedy a piece of her mind.
“You’ve got a great many very, very accomplished people in this room, Mr. Attorney General,” Hansberry told Kennedy. “But the only man who should be listened to is that man over there,” she said, referring to Smith.
Sighted Eyes is part of a trifecta of recent documentaries that have given us colorful new insights into the lives of those we often see in black and white. With What Happened, Miss Simone? and I Am Not Your Negro, about Baldwin, directors Raoul Peck and Liz Garbus produced chapters of an anthology about black intellectuals and artists who were contemporaries and friends. These directors give us insight into how the lives of Hansberry, Baldwin and Simone bled into each other, how their friendships provided solace and comfort to each other, how they lived as members of a community and not just as singular figures. They come alive.
Hansberry’s experiences, often told in her own words, come to life in Sighted Eyes thanks to voiceover from actress Anika Noni Rose reading from Hansberry’s journals and other archival material.
Strain, an experienced documentary filmmaker (I’ll Make Me a World, Race: The Power of an Illusion) and professor at Northeastern University became interested in Hansberry after seeing a community theater production of Hansberry’s play To Be Young, Gifted and Black in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The play, assembled from Hansberry’s own words after her death, shares its name with the Nina Simone song, which Hansberry inspired Simone to write.
With Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, Strain has created a portrait of Hansberry that’s as complete and well-rounded as the portrait of black family life that Hansberry captured in A Raisin in the Sun. In doing so, she’s transformed Hansberry from more than just a pretty young playwright who died tragically young. She’s rightfully preserved her place in American history.