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Lorraine Hansberry Was More Radical Than You Remember

A new documentary highlights how the playwright took full advantage of her talents to advance mid-century civil rights.
Lorraine Hansberry.

Lorraine Hansberry.

After the rapturous reception A Raisin in the Sun received following its 1959 Broadway premiere, its author, Lorraine Hansberry, began to get interest from film studios. She quickly drew a line in the sand: "Nobody's going to turn this thing into a minstrel show as far as I'm concerned," Hansberry proclaimed. "And if this blocks a sale [of the script], then it just won't be sold." Her play about the Youngers, a black family in Chicago searching for a better life, had become a hit thanks to its characters' full emotional landscapes, but Hansberry, only 28 years old when the play first opened, knew how Hollywood had long preferred to depict blacks on screen: degradingly. In the plays she wrote, Hansberry sought to jettison the images, such as the Mammy and bug-eyed buffoon archetypes, that continued to demonize black life in film. She wanted her art to be honest—to evoke truth through characters, rather than ridicule through caricatures.

Naturally, Hollywood didn't like that stance. Hansberry was allowed to write the screenplay, but studio executives at Columbia Pictures, which had won the screen rights, were insistent on scrubbing away elements of the screenplay that they thought might prove radioactive in the America of the 1960s. Which is to say: They didn't want the film to be About Race. The studio's then-vice president, Samuel Briskin, sent Hansberry a list of 106 notes instructing her, among other things, to rid the script of explicit mentions of racism. Hansberry wasn't able to stave off every effort to soften her original play, but she did, ultimately, maintain the sincerity of the work. "I worried about it enormously," she'd later say about the 1961 film adaptation. "And I'm very grateful. I think it emerges well."

Hansberry was an artist who was also an activist. That's the message of Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart, a new documentary that runs as part of PBS's American Masters series. Over the course of nearly two hours—which include interviews with personal friends such as Ruby Dee and Sidney Poitier, voice-over narration by the actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson, and footage of Hansberry herself—the film recounts how her classic play came to be. It also explores how keenly she succeeded in taking full advantage of her talents to advance mid-century civil rights—and to tell the truth of that struggle.

For Hansberry, it was unthinkable to be alive in the world only to ignore its betrayals. The film's very title reflects that point: "One cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world," Hansberry said in 1959. Her moral convictions didn't come from nowhere. Hansberry's father, Carl, was one of the most important figures in her life; feeling disillusioned with life in Chicago—and with life in America more generally—he'd intended to move his family to Mexico City, but he died unexpectedly when Hansberry was just 15 years old. Of his death, she later said: "American racism helped kill him."

In this light, one of the most fascinating elements of Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart is arguably its emphasis on Hansberry's potent alchemy of stage and words—how singularly she used theater to capture the roiling world around her. Consider A Raisin in the Sun: Not only did the play secure the top honor in 1959 from the New York Drama Critics' Circle, but it also was a crowd-pleaser. Or, perhaps better: It was a crowd-whisperer. The play offered black Americans, in particular, the kind of representation they didn't often get in the public sphere. It evoked the racial mess of the '60s, yes, but also the dignity of America's black underclass. (For instance, there's the character Beneatha, who strives to become a doctor.) "I had never in my life seen so many black people in the theater," the writer James Baldwin wrote about Hansberry's play in his 1969 essay "Sweet Lorraine." "And the reason was that never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people's lives been seen on the stage." A Raisin in the Sun did a rare thing: offer a rejoinder to the industry's own penchant for racism.

BRYAN STEVENSON ON WHAT WELL-MEANING WHITE PEOPLE NEED TO KNOW ABOUT RACE: An interview with Harvard University-trained public defense lawyer Bryan Stevenson on racial trauma, segregation, and listening to marginalized voices.

Yet the documentary doesn't avoid Hansberry's vulnerabilities: her uncertainty about the role she wanted to play in social change, her inner tussling over her identity. While the playwright lived an incredibly public life—she never turned down opportunities to debate and speak about her work—she also was strategic about what she kept just out of view.

And, well, she had to be. "I know what I have always known, before consciousness, even," she once wrote, "that, most important, it has to be her. I mean, the woman. It apparently, simply will not be the man for me." The film offers a solemn portrayal of Hansberry's veiled identity as a lesbian—one who spent about a decade in a heterosexual marriage to Robert Nemiroff, a Broadway producer. In a manner that mirrored her flair for prodding public discussion, she secretly wrote letters to The Ladder, a hush-hush magazine by and for lesbians, in which she grappled with some of the issues lesbians faced in that era. In a May 1957 letter, she wrote that "women, without wishing to foster any strict separatist notions, homo or hetero, indeed have a need for their own publications and organizations." A longtime outsider, Hansberry attached herself to a community that opened up new ways for her to think through her activism, including by articulating, in her private writing, more explicit parallels among the interconnecting challenges posed by homophobia, racism, and sexism.

Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart excavates a version of Hansberry many people likely aren't too familiar with, a version that's blacker, queerer, more radically leftist—and in the end truer. The film offers a full and accurate image of the playwright—who died of cancer in 1965, at the age of 34—that's far richer and more textured than the image they probably had before. On top of that, it also reminds viewers that no one and nothing demanded as much from Hansberry as she demanded from herself, as she strove to use her talents in service to social justice.

"Do I remain a revolutionary? Intellectually—without a doubt. But am I prepared to give my body to the struggle or even my comforts?" Hansberry wrote near the end of her life. "I think when I get my health back I shall go into the South to find out what kind of revolutionary I am."