It took 14 years and $1.2 million to make a documentary on the life of playwright Lorraine Hansberry.
“Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” by filmmaker/producer Tracy Heather Strain is worth every minute and every penny.
Hansberry is an authentic American genius.
When her seminal work, “A Raisin in the Sun,” opened on Broadway in 1959 it changed the face of American theater.
Most people have either seen a production of the play or the 1961 movie about the struggles of a fictional Younger family.
When the father dies and leaves a $10,000 insurance policy, the family nearly implodes over how best to spend the money. While “Mama” wants to move the family out of a crowded kitchenette in a segregated South Side neighborhood, her grown son, who is struggling to provide for his own family, wants to invest the money in a liquor store.
The play marked the first time that a play written by a black woman, directed by a black man and filled with black characters who neither sing nor dance was performed on “The Great White Way.”
“Raisin,” which starred Sidney Poitier, made Hansberry the youngest American playwright and the first African-American to win the coveted New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award.
On Thursday, a day before the anniversary of Hansberry’s death from cancer in 1965 at 34, Strain screened the film at the DuSable Museum of African American History for an audience that included some of Hansberry’s relatives.
During a talk before the screening, Strain tried to explain why she stuck with the project for so long.
“When I was just 17, my grandmother came out to the suburbs and took us to see a production of ‘[To Be] Young, Gifted and Black,’ ” Strain said, and Hansberry “just stayed with me. She just stayed in my head.”
“To Be Young, Gifted and Black” was adapted, after Hansberry’s death, from her letters, journal entries and interviews.
“She was a woman who wanted to change the world,” Strain said.
“Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” runs nearly two hours and takes viewers on a journey that begins with Hansberry’s father’s legal battle to fight housing discrimination.
After Carl Hansberry purchased a home for his family at 6140 S. Rhodes, white neighbors sued to enforce a restrictive covenant under which 500 property owners agreed that “no part of the real estate should be sold, leased to or permitted to be occupied by any person of ‘the colored race.’”
Despite her father’s success in business — he was known as the “Kitchenette King” — the suit showed that even wealthy blacks couldn’t escape the bounds imposed by racism. Even though Hansberry won a partial victory in that case, he planned to move his family to Mexico City, but died suddenly at 50.
His daughter blamed his early death on the stress of fighting the injustices of Jim Crow.
It was her father’s activism that led to the plot in the groundbreaking “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Strain didn’t just craft a documentary about Hansberry’s literary gift, but, through reels of archival footage, interviews, photographs and Hansberry’s handwritten notes, the filmmaker shows the artist as a civil rights activist and radical journalist.
“Negroes must concern themselves with every single means of struggle; legal, illegal, passive, active, violent and non-violent,” Hansberry wrote in 1962. “They must harass, debate, petition, boycott, sing hymns, pray on steps — and shoot from their windows when the racists come cruising through their communities.”
Hansberry was a member of the Communist Party and ran in circles that included black artists, performers and activists including leading intellectuals Paul Robeson and James Baldwin, which made her a target of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.
But that didn’t deter her.
“One cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know and read of the miseries which affect the world,” she said.
This documentary is long overdue. I salute Strain for the tenacity she has shown in making it.
Now, it’s up to us to show up. That is the least we can do.
It makes no sense to complain about the lack of black talent, come awards season, if we fail to support the work being done by black artists today.
“Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” airs at 9 p.m. Jan. 19 on WTTW-Channel 11 on “Lorraine Hansberry: American Masters.”