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Young, Gifted and Black: A New Documentary Celebrates the Writer/Activist Lorraine Hansberry

By Ken Jacobson

Lorraine Hansberry. Photo: David Attie. Courtesy of WNET.

When she was a teenager in the late '70s growing up in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania suburbs, filmmaker Tracy Heather Strain was taken by her grandmother to see the play To Be Young, Gifted and Black, based on the unpublished writings of Lorraine Hansberry. That experience deeply affected Strain and stayed with her as she sought, over the course of many years, to give Hansberry the feature-length film treatment that she felt she deserved.

A creative journey that was inspired four decades earlier reaches its conclusion with the upcoming broadcast premiere of Strain's new documentary, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, the first feature-length film devoted to the path-breaking African-American playwright and activist who rocketed to fame at an early age with her play A Raisin in the Sun, the first by an African-American woman to be produced on Broadway. Hansberry remains largely unknown by many and misunderstood by others.

Benefitting from exclusive access to materials in the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust, the film is narrated by LaTanya Richardson Jackson and features Anika Noni Rose as the voice of Lorraine Hansberry. Both received Tony nominations for their roles in the most recent Broadway production of A Raisin in the Sun. Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, produced by Strain and longtime filmmaking partner Randall MacLowry, premieres January 19 on American Masters, four days after the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro premieres on Independent Lens.

What was the key to unlocking and telling this story?

TRACY HEATHER STRAIN: The hardest thing of all was to figure out the story that we wanted to tell. There were so many ways you could go because Lorraine organically connected to the major movements during her lifetime. So, the Great Migration, the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, early Women's Movement, early Gay Lesbian Movement, Anti-Colonialism, Civil Rights: She's there. She's interested in all of those things and was a part of all of those things, and so it was a real challenge.

What it all came down to was me thinking, "OK, this is the first feature documentary about Lorraine Hansberry. Hopefully, there will be lots more." Like now, I Am Not Your Negro is not the first feature documentary about James Baldwin. The Price of the Ticket was, years ago. This is like a new, fresh look at James Baldwin. But we're not that film; we're a biography. People don't know who Lorraine Hansberry is. I thought about, What do they think of her, if they even know who she was, and what are they missing?

For the people who know Raisin in the Sun, there are a lot of people who don't like that play—Black people and White people—and there are a variety of reasons for it. But some of it comes down to the fact that for some reason, over time, it’s been interpreted as an integration story, and they sanitized her. I started reading all her papers and thinking about all her writing and trying to let the material speak to us, and what emerged is that she was an activist, a person who wanted to change society and, ultimately, she decided upon theater as her vehicle. She tried some other things. She tried journalism. Her father had tried legal means. But she was precocious and very bookish and very talented with language and words and that became the way that she decided that she was going to use to change the world. She thought art could do it.

So, once we settled on this notion of her being an artist-activist, that helped us eliminate some material. Then it was, How many realms of artist activism can this film support?

Talk about the historical importance of the play and how you wanted to use it in the film.

A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by an African-American woman to be performed on Broadway. It was also the first drama directed by an African-American man on Broadway [Lloyd Richards]. It was not a given that it was going to be successful. You have to think about 1959 and the fact that Black people hadn't seen images of themselves on the American stage that were accurately portraying their lives.

White people had seen very few plays that had African-American characters that they identified with. When you think about the reaction after people went to see the play, they comment on how universal it is: "It's not really a Black family. It could be any family." Because they had never related to a story with Black characters, even though the things that were very specifically happening to this family were only going to be happening to a Black family on the South Side of Chicago. So, it was a significant milestone in American theater.

Talk about your journey depicting Lorraine's family life and using that as a way to begin to understand her emotional and intellectual core.

In terms of the film starting in Chicago, it's interesting because these days people are really resistant to having the story be told linearly, but I always wanted to tell it linearly; I thought it was important to really understand where she came from because she was so hyper-articulate and confident. How do you get to be the person who decides to teach herself how to write a play and then it ends up on Broadway and then she's suddenly a celebrity and on TV, and feeling confident to battle Otto Preminger and Mike Wallace, David Suskind and all the other people she had words with on TV? How do you get to be that person?

She came from a family that made her feel secure and confident, and so I felt it was really important to understand this family. And for me the context of the time is very important.

I read a ton of books. We got materials from 93 archives. I was just absorbing all this material, and I realized that Chicago is the key inciting incident in this film. I don't think Chicago gets enough credit for its role in African-American lives.

You always hear about New York, but Chicago had a lot of Black businesses and there was a lot going on. It might have been segregated, but people ran things in a way that a lot of people in New York did not get to do, and so I thought it was important to understand this place, and, of course, understand the family. There were famous people coming to their home. And her father was a well-off real estate guy, and she grew up with that kind of confidence that people can have when they are not worried about material concerns.

Many of the interviews with key people in the film were shot as soon as you raised money. Talk about the challenges of shooting those interviews while you were still trying to figure out how to tell the main story of the film.

It was a real challenge. Every time we raised money, we ran out to try to film the next person, in case something happened to them. And it was a real challenge doing the first set of interviews without having the benefit of seeing Lorraine Hansberry's papers and seeing all of the papers that we subsequently saw and all of the photos. I didn't know what the story was when I started interviewing people. I feel very blessed that I was able to get as many interviews as I did before people passed away. The people we lost are Ruby Dee, Lloyd Richards, Phil Rose, Amiri Baraka and, most recently, Edie Windsor.

There is no book that I could go to and get the information that I got from them. So, I was doing the interviews and primary research at the same time. Almost everybody I interviewed I would have loved to have gone back and asked them different questions or asked them to say certain things again because once I knew where the story was going, I could have made certain things even better.

Originally, I wanted to have Lorraine Hansberry tell her own story, whether through archival material or having an actress read her words. And we quickly found out that that was not going to be possible. I thought her papers were going to reveal more about her motivations for things and clear up things that I had questions about for a long time. And they didn't.

So, then I realized I would have to have a narrator. And I would have to have other people helping to tell a story. You ask a lot of people some of the same questions and then you ask people specific questions that only they know about. So that’s what I did, and I tried academics to help contextualize things and also fill in some gaps, whether it's historical context or whether it was just trying to get into what Lorraine might have been thinking.

How did access to the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust add to your knowledge or lead to things in the film that otherwise would not have been in it?

The Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust has rights to Lorraine's writings, so her journals and personal papers are things that we would not have had access to without the Trust sharing them with us. The home movies in the film are part of the trust. Lorraine singing, that's from the trust as well, and the drawings. If people think it's special and personal, it's because of the materials we were able to use from Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust. But a lot of images in the film are not a part of the trust.

In the course of making the film over the years, what were some of your big discoveries, things that you hadn't known about and that may have deepened or changed your understanding of Lorraine and her impact?

I think when we found certain things that we had been looking for, like we had been searching to find Lorraine saying in her own voice that she was a lesbian. I wanted to have the actor reading Hansberry's words to have her say something. And finally we found this letter where she says what's in the film: "I have known. It has to be her. It's the woman." I am not quoting accurately. But when we found that, I was like, "Oh my gosh. We found it!"

I always wondered why she wasn't at the March on Washington. And then I discovered from her papers that she was recovering from surgery in Boston. She was [at home] in Croton-on-Hudson, New York, recovering from surgeries that were for cancer that she didn't know she had. And we found the letter where she says, "I am watching the March on Washington like a good invalid." So, that was exciting to understand that.

What do you think is the importance of telling the story now?

We finished the film, and we were accepted into Toronto [International Film Festival] and we raced to get all the post-production completed. It seems like the timing was kind of perfect in a certain way. But this is chance. The good thing about it coming out when it's coming out is that there are a lot of people who feel that things have gone backwards in our country in terms of race relations and other things. But I think Hansberry would have cared about workers' rights, international issues and women's rights.

And I think the good thing about Hansberry's voice is that it's young, and it has that energy that young people have about getting things done. And if things are going backwards, I think we can use these voices from the past, whether James Baldwin or Lorraine Hansberry, to help us think about getting back on track.

In the end of the film, we have a quote from Amani Perry talking about Lorraine Hansberry, saying that words are something to pay attention to. The point she is making is, we kept her as long as we needed her. If we are wise, we are listening. I think that she is someone we should listen to, and I think there should be more beyond what's in the film. I think people should be inspired.

So far, at our screenings, that is what I am hearing. People are inspired to be more creative. People have been inspired to be more engaged in activism. Because they are really surprised at how the film destroys the idea that Lorraine Hansberry was an integrationist who was kind of sitting there going, "Oh, we shall just overcome." She felt like if she had to pick up a gun to protect herself, she would pick it up. And I think people are surprised that she was like that.

Ken Jacobson is a contributing editor at Documentary magazine and a festival and educational programmer.