“Write if you will, but write about the world as it is, and as you think it ought to be and must be.”
That’s Lorraine Hansberry, speaking in 1964 to the winners of a writing contest for black teenagers, as related in the new documentary “Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,” playing this weekend at PMA Films. Hansberry – by that point, widely acclaimed as the barrier-shattering playwright of “A Raisin In The Sun” – in that same speech, also coined the phrase “young, gifted, and black,” which not only helped usher in the term “black” as a point of pride, but also applied – uniquely and tragically – to the author herself.
The film, part of the “American Masters” series and a fine night of Black History Month viewing, is familiar in form to a thousand other documentary portraits of great artists and notable people: talking head interviews, archival footage, carefully culled vintage photographs, period music, a few judiciously sprinkled reenactments – all the safely informative stuff of the standard PBS bio. But Hansberry’s life story contains within it elements that threaten to burst through the staid confines of the educational documentary. For one thing, the talking heads in “Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” aren’t the standard talking heads, comprised as these interviews are of reminiscences from legendary actors and activists like Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Louis Gossett Jr., Glynn Turman, and Harry Belafonte, as well as notable critical voices like Amiri Baraka and Imani Perry. For another, the film shows how Hansberry’s short life was dedicated not only to her art, but also to using her art to challenge the platitudes upon which “nice, safe” art and activism traditionally rely upon.
If nothing else, the film does an exciting, inspiring job of reminding us just how important, moving and truly revolutionary “A Raisin in the Sun” was in American entertainment history. The play, written when Hansberry was all of 28, was the sort of seismic cultural event whose impact on American society has gotten lost over time. The story of a working-class black family deciding how to use the unexpected windfall of its dead patriarch’s life insurance policy, the play’s eventual success was anything but assured. Hansberry was young, a woman, black and a first-time playwright pitching a working-class drama of African-American life to a Broadway that had only ever featured 10 plays by black authors in its entire history, all by men, and none making much impact financially or otherwise.
The play featured 10 roles for black actors and confronted issues both inside and outside the black community sure to make white audiences uncomfortable, angry or both. Even the fact that the young Poitier – already a movie star – took the lead role (against the wishes of his agents) couldn’t guarantee that “A Raisin in the Sun” wouldn’t flop — an outcome, according to one interviewee, that would essentially mean that this particular doorway into the theater would be slammed shut for black authors for a long, long time.
In the end, of course, the Broadway production (starring first Poitier, then Ossie Davis, alongside Dee, Gossett, then-8-year-old Turman and Claudia McNeil) kicked that door down, despite confronting mostly white 1959 Broadway audiences with issues like racism, housing discrimination and institutional poverty. Hansberry (blushingly carried onstage by Poitier during the thunderous opening night ovation) won the New York Drama Critics Award, the first black writer – and the youngest ever – to do so, and, in an empirically true sense, changed the American theater forever. According to the film, that Hansberry’s legacy isn’t as enduring as it might be to the average person has as much to do with how Hansberry used her position as celebrity author as it does to the shockingly unfair fact of Hansberry’s early death at the age of 34.
Watch the trailer:
Raised by a wealthy black family whose own patriarch died in self-imposed exile after a too-often-thwarted lifetime spent pursuing success and social justice in the most “acceptable” ways set out by the American dream, Hansberry spent her life continuing his fight against injustice on her own terms. And, as the film lays out with increasingly moving admiration, those terms were uncompromising.
Hansberry agreed to sell film rights to her play only if she were hired to adapt it in order to keep the skittish studio from watering it down. She married white, Jewish writer Robert Nemiroff for love, despite interracial marriage being illegal in half the states in the country. And then, after coming to terms with her own lesbianism later in her short life, left him to live on her own. Accepting every interview and speaking engagement received after her success, she took on all comers, weathering the condescension of white critics and, in a memorable meeting of black intellectuals and activists with Robert F. Kennedy, took the then-attorney general to task for seeking to placate racists opposed to the civil rights movement, in no uncertain terms.
“You are the best of what white America can offer us,” Hansberry told the equivocating Kennedy. “If you can’t hear what we’re saying, then we don’t have any hope.”
But Hansberry lived in not just hope, but active, engaged optimism, as she used her celebrity to raise both money and awareness. It was her fundraiser that bought the station wagon that young civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner were driving when the young voting rights activists were pulled over and murdered by Mississippi Ku Klux Klansmen. She spent the last years of her life writing, speaking and donating to the civil rights movement, even though the persistent ailments plaguing her (eventually discovered to be terminal cancer) prevented her from traveling without intense pain. She withstood hostility not only from outright racists but from those she confronted because they would only take the safest, least revolutionary messages from what they saw as simply a nice, uplifting night at the theater. And she did it all while, as the film reveals, she – a young, gay, female, Communist-affiliated writer – was under constant scrutiny by J. Edgar Hoover’s red-baiting, activist-harassing FBI.
The mixing of art and politics invites all manner of abuse and temptations to adapt one’s message to avoid that abuse. “Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” is a stirring, touching, and inspiring portrait of a remarkable woman who, in her short time on this earth, took every opportunity to apply her talents toward making America uncomfortable for the best of reasons.
“Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” is showing at PMA Films at 6 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Admission is $8/$6 for members and students with ID.
All week: “Black Panther.” It might not be “A Raisin in the Sun,” but the fact that this newest entry in the Marvel superhero series features an all-black cast and is receiving not only record-breaking box office numbers but also overwhelming critical acclaim is going to change entertainment in its own way. Plus, the Black Panther is super cool.
PORT CITY MUSIC HALL
Friday: “The Grateful Dead Movie.” Directed by the Dead’s legendary leader, Jerry Garcia, this 1977 rockumentary captures the band’s 1974 five-show stint at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. This free screening is 18-plus and the perfect night out – for certain people.