On January 29, Sighted Eyes / Feeling Heart: Lorraine Hansberry returned home to where it was originally produced in Cambridge for a showing at the Brattle Theatre. The film made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September and has since been added to PBS’s American Master Series. It was introduced by Ja’Tovia Gary’s mesmerizing short film on faith and transcendence, An Ecstatic Experience (2015). I had watched the piece a few months earlier at the Whitney Museum of American Art, but to see it positioned next to Lorraine’s voice convinced me that it was a brilliant pairing.
The short features clips of sermons, with Black churchgoers sweating in pews set to the sounds of Alice Coltrane’s Journey in Satchidananda. The track cuts out and we see Ruby Dee reciting a slave narrative; I suddenly felt hot in the cool theatre. Admittedly, I was apprehensive sitting in the packed audience, the majority of which was White. In settings like this I sometimes feel witness to a sort of collective misunderstanding, like when a Black woman on screen speaks passionately and laughter fills the room. In the case of the Brattle, the crowd was filled with long-term supporters of Sighted Eyes who had been passionately awaiting its completion. I had moments of discomfort, but they were tempered by gratitude for the existence of this work.
The documentary has been 14 years in the making—director Tracy Heather Strain started collecting research for the project back in 2004. She credits the inspiration of this film to her grandmother bringing her to see a production of Hansberry’s Young, Gifted and Black back when she was 17 years old. As a young adult, she heard Spike Lee’s call to Black directors to create Black films and felt there was a hole where the story of Lorraine Hansberry should be. Proof of the power of the archive, Sighted Eyes makes use of an incredible collection of Hansberry’s own journaling, interviews, and home videos. English Professor Christina Sharpe says, of Hansberry’s impact, “[She] was so clear-sighted, so committed to imagining Black freedom, so prescient and present, that her death at the age of thirty-four was an almost unimaginable loss.” The documentary creates a space for its audience to both mourn and celebrate the iconic writer and playwright, who passed away in 1965. She shares her May 19 birthday with Malcolm X—and myself. Today, she would have been 88 years old.
Best known for her 1959 breakout play A Raisin in the Sun, Hansberry became the first Black woman to have a show produced on Broadway. The play—later adapted as a film in 1961—is often regarded as a pivotal point in the potential of widely produced Black dramas with its depiction of a multidimensional Black family, internal conflicts of masculinity, and what it means to desire freedom.
The documentary features a brief interview with renowned writer Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) who passed away in 2014. We see him give praise to Hansberry and reconsider his initial belittling comments regarding Raisin. In his youth, Baraka felt the work was one that catered to the comfort of White audiences and the falsity of the American dream. In his reflection, he remembered the work as one that dealt with the real economic concerns Black families in America were facing in the mid-19th century. Other contemporaries interviewed include Lloyd Richards, Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, and Harry Belafonte. We also get to hear from Lorraine’s older sister, Mamie Hansberry, who called Lorraine “the little sponge” for her ability to soak up information as a child. These interviews contextualize Hansberry as a visionary who deeply influenced her peers.
Beyond commemorating her most popular work, Sighted Eyes shares with its audience what Hansberry imagined freedom to be. Rejecting the deeply racialized class structures that the United States depended (and still depends) on, Lorraine Hansberry joined the Communist Party and subsequently its Labor Youth League after moving to New York City. She found herself surrounded by a community of Pan-Africanists like herself while writing for the Freedom paper; this activity eventually led her to be heavily surveilled by the FBI. Sharpe says, on the film’s shortcomings, “I wish that the documentary had done more in relation to her commitments to the left.” Sharpe recalls the blacklisting of Freedom’s founder, Paul Robeson, by the US government for his ties to Communism and anti-Imperialism. In response to the confiscation of Robeson’s passport, Hansberry travelled to report for the paper when he could not. Lorraine’s father Carl Hansberry, a Chicagoan who fought against racist, restrictive housing covenants, could not find reason to remain in a nation that refused his humanity. He relocated to Mexico where he died, a man exiled from his country. In her writing, it is obvious Lorraine carried the legacy of his life and death with her through her own.
Watching Sighted Eyes, it feels like a privilege to hear Hansberry’s life and legacy reflected back to me. I worried her queerness would be neglected altogether, but I was delighted with the way Strain and her team dedicated attention to Hansberry’s sexuality. We watch as, amidst the success of Raisin, she worked to conceal her lesbianism. Throughout her career, Hansberry recorded her “homosexuality,” which led to the publishing of a number of letters under a pseudonym in the lesbian magazine The Ladder. Her husband at the time, Robert Nemiroff, worked to help her conceal this part of herself. Listening to Hansberry write about herself as a queer Black woman who was selective in the community she chose to share her sexuality with, I found myself imagining how she might love in the world today. In a note dated April 1, 1960, Hansberry documents her satisfactions and frustrations in list form. Under “I Like,” she writes “my homosexuality.” Under “I Hate,” she writes “my homosexuality.” Today, would Hansberry find community that was all-encompassing?
The arrival of Lorraine Hansberry’s life into the realm of documentary was long overdue, and the lasting memory of her work attests to that. Hansberry sought truth concerning the human condition in all that she did, and she ferociously worked towards liberation. One of my favorite scenes in the documentary is a home video that shows Lorraine seated at the steering wheel of a car, a red scarf tied around her head that matches the color of the red leather seats. She turns to the camera and smiles. Here, she looks free.