At Mass Cultural Council, we are privileged to encounter a range of exhilarating creative projects. One of the more memorable in the past 10 years is The Lorraine Hansberry Documentary Project by Tracy Heather Strain and Randall MacLowry (Film & Video Fellows ’07). The project explores the life of playwright/activist Lorraine Hansberry, best known for her 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun. Serving as the centerpiece of the project and more than a decade in the making, the documentary film Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart is about to have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (September 7-17, 2017).
In 2011, we interviewed Tracy, the film’s director, and she spoke about the genesis of her interest in 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. Getting out of college, 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 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. I worked 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 (mainly) 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.
The film explores not only Hansberry’s playwriting, through interviews with Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Louis Gossett Jr., and others involved with her work, but also her activism in civil rights and gay rights. LaTanya Richardson Jackson narrates, and Lorraine Hansberry is voiced by Anika Noni Rose. Boston actress Alexandria King plays Lorraine Hansberry in the on-screen re-enactments. Medford resident Joi Gresham, of Lorraine Hansberry Literary Properties Trust, served as Special Consultant.
Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, directed by Tracy Heather Strain, will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (September 7-17, 2017). The film is expected to have its broadcast debut in February 2018 on the PBS series American Masters.
Image: still from SIGHTED EYES/FEELING HEART directed by Tracy Heather Strain.