AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: ‘Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart’ ✮✮✮✮

There’s a house in northwest Woodlawn in Chicago that I want to visit. Everyone in Chicago should go there. Anyone who visits Chicago, should go there. The house was purchased in 1937 by a real estate developer, Carl Hansberry. The family moved in, but then waged a three-year battle that went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Along the way, the Hansberry family endured the hate of a community, a white community. The Hansberry family was black.

In 2010, the three-story brown stones became a Chicago landmark. Hansberry’s youngest child, Lorraine (1930-1965) is the person who made that house that never became a home famous. “Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” is about that child, that struggle and her other struggles before her death from cancer at age 34.

Lorraine took her battles stories and wrote them into a play about a dead father and a deferred dream, “A Raisin in the Sun” which was the first play written by a black woman to hit Broadway (1959), It was nominated for four Tony Awards.

The original Broadway cast included Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee (1922-2014), Ivan Dixon (1931-2008) and Louis Gossett Jr. The cast were unsure of its reception. At the TCA PBS Press Tour in January, Gossett recalled “We thought we had failed; there was a silence after the first act and the second act.” He added, “They were so stricken, it took them a moment to realize what they had just witnessed. It was as if it were a flop for a good ten seconds.”

Filmmaker Tracy Heather Strain, also on the TCA panel, explained why she made this documentary, saying, “People don’t know about Lorraine Hansberry, but people should know about Lorraine Hansberry.” Strain added, “The arch of this film is Lorraine as an artist activist.  She was from a family that was basically an activist family.” And even when her father died, something Lorraine blamed on the stress of that legal battle, Lorraine didn’t stop. In “Raisin” she brought both the poignant sorrow over a lost father and the determination to attain his dream. She met and socialized with other activists. While Lorraine is mentioned in the James Baldwin documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” in regards to the Kennedy meeting, in “Lorraine Hansberry,” we get to see her point of view.

This documentary was 14 years in the making according to Strain and yet she admits she didn’t  get answers to Lorraine’s feelings about major issues. Even in her diaries Lorraine Hansberry was guarded. She confessed to being lonely and although she did marry, she wanted to be loved. One of the most intriguing and poignant questions are if she was lesbian. Strain said in the diaries, there were no deep personal revelations about James Baldwin (1924-1987) or Nina Simone (1933-2003). Lorraine was the inspiration for Simone’s song, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.”

 

Strain found Lorraine to be very “compartmentalized” and although she was “very public about most of her life but the part about being lesbian was private.”

Gossett remembers are “quite brilliant, but she was a mystery to me.” He characterizes her as “very secretive and quiet.” Gossett recalled that when “Raisin” premiered, “Everyone held our breath to see if it was accepted” and it was in that respect, “just like roots.” In the end, it was “a breath of fresh air that people understood.”

The documentary includes interviews with Poitier, Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte and Louis Gossett, Jr. as well as Lorraine’s sister, Mamie Hansberry. Using Lorraine Hansberry’s personal papers and archives that include home movies and rarely seen photographs, Strain has made a sensitive, moving documentary with Tony Award-winning actress Anika Noni Rose voicing Lorraine and narration is provided by LaTanya Richardson Jackson.

Lorraine’s father changed the demographics of a neighborhood in Chicago and Lorraine made sure his sacrifice and the family’s suffering wasn’t forgotten by writing a play that has become an American classic.  Although the original events were in Chicago–the setting for the play, the play’s name actually reminds us of another neighborhood in another city: Harlem.

In the poem “Harlem,” Langston Hughes (1902-1967) asked:

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?

American Masters “Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” takes it name from a quote from Lorraine’s writings, “One cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know and read of the miseries which affect the world.” We need to remember the miseries of her world and see if we still allow dreams to shrivel like a raisin in the sun because of racism or other prejudices. And become involved in our time.

“Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” premiered on PBS Jan. 19 and is available online for streaming. The documentary is part of American Masters year-long online campaign: Inspiring Women.”

 

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