Tracy Heather Strain and Randall MacLowry (Film & Video Fellows ’07) have a remarkable thing going with the Lorraine Hansberry Documentary Project (currently in-progress with collaborator Chiz Schultz). It’s the first feature length documentary about Hansberry, and given her impact as a mid-20th century African American artist and activist, the project is an opportunity to inquire into a crucial chapter in American cultural history. In exploring that history, the filmmakers’ work is quintessentially contemporary, mapping out a variety of platforms with which to engage audiences.
We asked Tracy about the origins of the project, the multi-faceted work of a contemporary documentary filmmaker, and her trajectory as a film artist.
Update, January 2-18: The film premiered in 2017 with the title Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart.
ArtSake: Can you talk about how this project began? What led to your decision to make a documentary on Lorraine Hansberry?
Tracy: I had never heard of Lorraine Hansberry when my grandmother took me and my younger sister to see the Harrisburg Community Theater’s production of To Be Young, Gifted and Black. It was quite an experience. First, it was just kind of cool for my grandmother to take me to something called To Be Young, Gifted and Black: I was 17. You hope that your parents and family see you as gifted. And of course I was black. But then I was really drawn in. Her life and her observations particularly resonated with me, made me feel less lonely. I had had some of the same experiences that she’d had. And to put that in context, I was a part of that big cohort of African American families that moved from the cities to the suburbs in the mid-’60s. Mixed in with what was a very happy childhood were some very unpleasant experiences because of race and racism. The pools were still segregated. At certain restaurants, waitresses would sometimes go out of their way not to take our family’s order. Gas stations sometimes wouldn’t let us use their restrooms. People often want to forget that there was, and sometimes still is, de facto segregation in the north.
Hansberry was addressing those kinds of issues. She wanted to foster change using her art. Of course, A Raisin in the Sun is the most visible example. I remember after college, getting out of college – I was an American Studies major – and my first job was in advertising and direct marketing, and I was really inspired by the ’80s independent film movement. I decided then that I would make a film about Lorraine Hansberry. I would go to the Boston Public Library after work and research her. I would talk about her, and people didn’t know who she was and didn’t know anything about her. And I hardly knew – compared to what I know now – I hardly knew anything about her, either.
I found a job in production so I could learn how to make films. Once I saw Eyes on the Prize on TV, I knew I needed to work at Blackside, which is Henry Hampton’s company. After starting there as an associate producer on The Great Depression series, I later worked there as a producer/director/writer on two films for a series called I’ll Make Me a New World: A Century of African American Art. And I did a short segment on Hansberry in that. I kind of debated whether I’d already made my Hansberry film. Could I stop right there? But the more I learned about her, the more I knew I’d have to make a feature length documentary. To just leave her story as it had been told up to that point, a positive tale about opportunities in post-WWII America, would do a disservice to the reality of her experiences. Not to say that that’s not one of the ways you can look at her life. But I saw her life was more of a struggle than I originally thought.
Then I found out that there was someone else who was also on a mission to make a film about Lorraine Hansberry: Chiz Schultz. We joined forces in 2004. He actually – this is so wild to me – he used to work at Harry Belafonte’s company, and he and Harry were the original producers of the Off-Broadway production of To Be Young, Gifted, and Black in 1969. So it felt like it was meant to be.
ArtSake: Contemporary documentary film artists are no longer just making films, it seems. They’re embarking on multi-platform projects that include both the making of the film and a greater outreach and community building effort. Am I right that this is indeed a recent shift in documentary filmmaking? And how does this complicate your work as a filmmaker?
Tracy: Well, creating outreach for documentaries is not new. Almost every project I’ve worked on for public television had teachers’ and study guides, and involved outreach. When I worked at Blackside or WGBH, for example, the outreach was being developed as we were doing the film. So this notion of multi-platform projects was already out there. Now we are expected to develop transmedia storytelling projects in which the public engagement, social media, and interactivity are to be built into the entire life of the project. It is a paradigm shift that is both challenging and exciting.
There are great digital tools, and I’m very motivated, having focused on Technology, Innovation, and Education in graduate school, but the hours in the day haven’t increased. And as you’re working really hard to be a filmmaker, it can be difficult to step out and try to be an expert at something else, or find the right folks to collaborate with when you do not have the money to pay them. The challenge is figuring out how to have the time and resources – both psychological and financial – and even the capacity to make the film and complete the educational and engagement activities. In the Lorraine Hansberry Documentary Project, we’re moving forward on each in fits and spurts. We don’t have any other choice!
All of this has been changing intensely within the last several years. And it’s happening at the same time many foundations are becoming more interested in public engagement and cross-media storytelling. Some want to see if your project has followers on Facebook and Twitter as a way to determine if your project actually has an audience and/or if you’ve started cultivating it.
ArtSake: Because your project revolves around a mid-century writer, much of the film includes archival footage. The footage is, of course, extremely rich content, but it’s also expensive to license. Can you talk about how this increases the financial burden on this project?
Tracy: One of the biggest challenges we face making this film is rights cost. We’d like to make a project available in all platforms known now and in the future. That means asking people to give us rights in all media worldwide, in perpetuity. We’re estimating that the rights for this project will cost $300,000. It’s a lot of money of course. Some people make whole documentaries on that amount of money.
And the historical material is key. Because we need to examine artists like Lorraine Hansberry in the context of the time in which she was operating, in which her parents were operating. I think a lot of funders today want to fund present-day documentaries, social issue documentaries, and I applaud that. But I also think those same issues have important historical contexts. And I think it would be helpful and instructive for today’s activists to see the continuity and the contrasts of what has changed, what hasn’t. Hansberry was an artist – and an activist.
I worry we’re going to start seeing fewer films of this kind because it’s so hard to raise the money. There are people who through kindness will share their historical material at little or no cost. And we hope that that tradition will continue in this project. We’re passionate about making this film happen and have put a lot of our own money into sustaining it between other work.
ArtSake: You just received a $30,000 Arts and Radio and Television grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and other grants panels – the 2007 MCC Artist Fellowships and LEF Moving Image Fund Grant and the 2009 Brother Thomas Fellowships – have recognized you for artistic excellence. Can you talk about grants such as these affect you as an artist?
Tracy: I’m so grateful that the panels recognized what I’m trying to achieve – in the documentary, in the short run. And hopefully they see me emerging, in the long run, as an artist.
I’ve done a lot of work-for-hire and in each project I’ve learned new things. This is the first time I’m making my own film. But it is very important to stress that I’m not making my own film alone. My husband Randall MacLowry and veteran filmmaker Chiz Schultz – we’re all working together on this. And I have friends and colleagues who’ve been supportive and have helped us in a variety of ways. We’ve interviewed several individuals who knew Hansberry personally, and I’ve been moved by their willingness to share their stories about her, including Philip Rose, the original producer of A Raisin in the Sun, who recently died. I’m grateful not only to the grant panels but also to all the other people supporting me, for believing in my artistic vision, and a qualitative approach based on what I learned from working at Blackside.
ArtSake: You mentioned that the collaboration with Chiz Schultz began in 2004. Is part of the reason a film like yours can take so many years to create that the artistic content is enriched by that commitment of time?
Tracy: Lorraine was so smart and so well read. And she drew on references that aren’t commonplace today. If I look at one five page letter she wrote, and if I really want to know what she’s trying to say, I have to look up a lot of material. So if we have notebooks filled with letters, and I really want to understand her, it requires a lot of time to do that work and let the information sit.
She was born in 1930. She died in 1965. Those are four decades of great transformation in American society: the Depression, WWII, post-war progressive politics, the Cold War. And then the modern Civil Rights movement. One reason I really like this story about her is that she and her family show that the Civil Rights movement didn’t just start with the Montgomery bus boycott, Brown Vs. the Board of Education. Her family had been engaged in protests for a long time. Less well known is that Hansberry was also secretly supporting gay/lesbian activism at the time. She gave money to emerging organizations and contributed to publications using pseudonyms or her initials.
So how do I bring context? I want to make a film that makes deep connections, and that does take time. You have all these wonderful, cheaper, digital media-making tools, but you still have to think and wrestle with the ideas and the vast amount of material we’ve collected from various archives – and you can’t necessarily speed up your thinking.
ArtSake: Social media is one of the facets of the “transmedia” project. Have you been met with excitement about the project through its online platforms?
Tracy: One of Hansberry’s nieces actually contacted me through the Facebook page. And yes, a lot of people are really excited. It’s hard to believe that this prominent artist who died in 1965 has never been featured in a documentary. We think this new scholarship we’ve uncovered and this presentation of a fuller picture of who Hansberry was will resonate with people similarly to the way To Be Young, Talented, and Black resonated with me.
Tracy Heather Strain is a documentary filmmaker, a producer of educational videos and museum segments, and a principal and co-founder of the Boston-based media production studio The Film Posse, Inc.