I wanted to be able to come here and speak with you on this occasion because you are young, gifted and black. ... I, for one, can think of no more dynamic combination that a person might be. ... And that is why I say to you that, though it be a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic—to be young, gifted and black.
Writer and playwright Lorraine Hansberry was just shy of her 34th birthday when she said these words, part of a speech titled “The Nation Needs Your Gifts,” to the winners of the Reader’s Digest/United Negro College Fund creative-writing contest on May 1, 1964. She would not live to see her 35th birthday, tragically dying of pancreatic cancer on Jan. 12, 1965.
Hansberry’s brief but remarkable life is the subject of Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, a gorgeous new documentary debuting tonight on the series American Masters on PBS. The title is derived from a quote of Hansberry’s about the activism that in large part inspired her artistry:
One cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world.
The Glow Up had the opportunity to speak with Tracy Heather Strain, director of Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, about the journey that led her to tell the story of the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway (A Raisin in the Sun). For her, the journey began 40 years ago, when her grandmother took her to see a production of To Be Young, Gifted and Black.
“I think everybody who encounters Lorraine Hansberry’s words is really taken by her,” Strain recalls. “But I think that if you’re a young black woman and you haven’t heard a lot of young black voices that were so strong and clear about what was good about society, what was bad about society—racism, sexism, class issues—she’s so powerful.”
But while Strain’s interest in Hansberry began in her teens, her route to filmmaking was less direct. Heeding Spike Lee’s early call to “make black film,” she bravely abandoned a career in advertising and direct marketing for an entry-level position at a production company.
Around the same time, Strain attended a 1989 Boston production of Hansberry’s final work, Les Blancs, and fortuitously met Hansberry’s ex-husband and executor of her estate, fellow writer Robert Nemiroff. Having worked up the courage to suggest to him that there should be a documentary about Hansberry, Nemiroff told Strain that he had every intention of doing exactly that; having granted film producer Chiz Schultz exclusive access to the Hansberry material.
But Nemiroff’s death in 1991 understandably stalled the project, which then remained dormant for more than a decade. Meanwhile, Strain progressed on her path to becoming a seasoned filmmaker, producer, director and writer. When Schultz began looking for a director to revive the concept, he was introduced to Strain. And she was more than ready to take it on.
“We officially count the beginning of this project as 2004, so we say it’s a 14-year journey. But for me personally, Hansberry’s been in my head for a lot longer,” she explains.
The result is a truly beautiful two-hour tribute to an artist and activist who was well ahead of her time. Through interviews with contemporaries and friends like Harry Belafonte, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier and Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones); coupled with Hansberry’s own writings, narrated by actresses LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Anika Noni Rose (who voices Hansberry), we are introduced to a complex, deeply intuitive woman whose commitment to her work was paralleled only by her devotion to her race.
What is perhaps most striking is how relevant Hansberry’s work remains, over 50 years after her death. It is now especially poignant in an America that seems to equate making itself “great again” with catapulting us back to Jim Crow (at least). In Hansberry’s own words:
The problem is we have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical. ... The basic organization of American society is the thing that has Negroes in the situation that they are in, and never let us lose sight of it.
Strain agrees, admitting that despite the long road it took to get Hansberry’s story onto the screen, her legacy hasn’t diminished in the intervening years:
I think that the underlying issues haven’t really changed in our society for African-American lives. ... When we were trying to raise money for this, it was kind of frustrating for us that people were not getting that these words were relevant to the time. ... In 2004, you could see that her words were relevant. I think now, [with] it coming out at this particular moment in history, they seem more relevant and prescient and urgent. And I think while on the one hand, I wish it hadn’t taken so long to make this film, I do think this film is coming out at the right moment.
In many ways, Hansberry’s story may be even more relevant now, as it is finally a moment in time when it can be told in full. As a creative wrestling with sexual identity in addition to race and gender, Hansberry was a true example of radical intersectionality at a moment when the language to support her didn’t yet exist. For Strain, it’s most important that viewers come away with an understanding and respect for Hansberry’s humanity, beyond the attributes that rightfully qualify her as a black American heroine.
I think it’s really important for people—especially young people—to understand how the person got to be in that revered position. What are the steps? Life’s hard; being an artist, being a creative person, is usually a challenge for most people. And for Lorraine Hansberry, it was no exception. And so, I think it’s important, especially for young people, to see fully complex human beings. ...
And so, I hope that young people are inspired to think that getting an education and knowing your stuff is part of our history, too. It is not just somebody else’s history. And I hope that with this film, anyone who [is] struggling with or juggling [their] identities, to know that they’re not alone. Lorraine Hansberry wrestled with that. And then, finally, activism. You know, we have to all figure out how to contribute to making the change that we want to see. How do we make our society live up to its ideals? And I think Lorraine is a fitting figure to empower people to start wrestling with how they’re going to do that.
American Masters’ Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart premieres Friday at 9 p.m. EST on PBS.