Lorraine Hansberry speaks truth to power in new documentary Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

Lorraine Hansberry
Lorraine Hansberry was enigmatic and prolific, a radical who shook up the literary world

Tonight on PBS, the new American Masters documentary Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart will see filmmaker Tracy Heather Strain shine the spotlight on a most amazing American writer who died far too young.

The film portrays Hansberry, who believed that words could, in fact, change the world. Strain combed through Hansberry’s diaries and found how she used the theater for her medium for activism at a crucial time for black civil rights.

The cryptic and widely unknown life and work of Hansberry, a passionate writer, closeted lesbian and civil-rights advocate who played a significant role in the major cultural and political movements of her time, are not widely known.

In the late 1950s, Hansberry set out to write a play about the struggles of an ordinary black family on Chicago’s South Side. Until this play, no work by a female African-American playwright had ever been produced on New York’s Broadway.

Standing the test of time, and six decades after it was written, A Raisin in the Sun is considered a classic.

But who was Lorraine? Narrated by LaTanya Richardson Jackson and featuring the voice of Anika Noni Rose as Lorraine Hansberry, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart features rare interviews with family, friends and colleagues, including Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, her sister Mamie Hansberry, Harry Belafonte and Louis Gossett, Jr., creating a nuanced portrait of an activist and artist ahead of her time.

Hansberry’s most famous play earned her the top prize from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle.

The film explores the profound influences that peppered Hansberry’s childhood including the death of her beloved father. It also delves into her future art and activism.

The film title comes from Hansberry’s view that “one cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world”.

At the Television Critics Association winter tour, Monsters and Critics asked PBS executive producer Michael Kantor and filmmaker Strain if it was exciting to introduce people to such an interesting historical and important figure like Lorraine, who so many may not be aware.

Strain said: “It’s really exciting to introduce someone to the world that few people know about. It was kind of my mission. It was kind of my mantra. People don’t know about Lorraine Hansberry. People should know about Lorraine Hansberry. So that’s why I made the film. So it’s very gratifying to finally have this out into the world.”

Michael Kantor added: “I studied as a theater director and, of course, I think in 9th grade, most schools teach A Raisin in the Sun, but what I learned from Tracy’s beautiful work is that you know that expression, ‘speak truth to power?’ Boy, did she know how to speak truth to power.”

Explaining what created the fire within Lorraine to pen such profound literature, Strain said: “Lorraine Hansberry’s family is what started the fire. She was from a family that was engaged in political activism in trying to change things for African Americans in her south side community. Her dad would be known would be called a ‘race man’.

“That’s the term that people used to use. And he was engaged. He won a Supreme Court case because he moved the family into a previously all-white neighborhood, and they were forced to leave. And the case was taken all the way to the Supreme Court, and he won on a technicality. And she was a daddy’s girl.

“And so, in the documentary, we describe this kind of nurturing she had. When people talk about people becoming experts and they get those 10,000 hours, well, Lorraine started very young with her 10,000 hours of being an activist.

“And then, when her father passed away trying to, as she said, do it the American way, she tried other ways, journalism, and then she decided upon art, using the theater as a way to try to change society.”

American Masters’ Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart premieres tonight, Friday, January 19 at 9 pm on PBS (check local listings). It is part of American Masters’ year-long Inspiring Woman online campaign which includes podcasts, a web series now streaming on pbs.org/inspiringwoman, YouTube and Facebook, and story submissions. Anyone can share stories of inspirational women in their own lives via text, images or videos on the Inspiring Woman website or via Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #InspiringWomanPBS.

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