African American playwright Lorraine Hansberry, new film


This 8 September 2017 video from the USA is called Sighted Eye/Feeling Heart – Official Trailer.

By Joanne Laurier in the USA:

African American playwright Lorraine Hansberry

4 October 2017

Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

Tracy Heather Strain’s new documentary Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart chronicles the life of African-American writer Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965), famed author of A Raisin in the Sun, a play about black working class life in Chicago in the 1950s. Strain’s movie takes its title from Hansberry’s contention that “one cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world.”

Filmmaker Strain was the coordinating producer for the 2016 documentary, The Mine Wars/American Experience, about the West Virginia coal miners’ uprisings in the early 20th century.

Lorraine Hansberry was politically and artistically influenced by and personally knew historian W.E.B. Dubois, singer Paul Robeson and poet Langston Hughes among other significant African American intellectuals. The title of A Raisin in the Sun comes from Hughes’ poem “A Dream Deferred,” in which he asks, “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun, Or does it explode?”

Strain’s documentary combines fascinating archival material and interview footage of Hansberry, as well as Anika Noni Rose’s reading of Hansberry’s words. It presents a straightforward and enlightening picture of a woman who was smart, sensitive and rebellious, tragically dying of pancreatic cancer at the age of 34.

Hansberry was born in Chicago during the Great Depression. When her family moved to a “hellishly hostile white neighborhood”, her father became involved in a battle to end restrictive housing covenants that prohibited the sale of houses to African Americans, Jews and others.

At the University of Wisconsin in the late 1940s, Lorraine Hansberry joined the Communist Party, through the medium of the Henry Wallace campaign. Moving to New York City, Hansberry then worked for Paul Robeson’s magazine, Freedom. In 1953, she met songwriter and activist Robert Nemiroff on a picket line in New York, and they soon married. (Nemiroff co-wrote the song “Cindy, Oh Cindy,” famously recorded by Eddie Fisher in the 1950s). The couple divorced in 1962, and Hansberry later became an activist for gay rights.

Debuting on Broadway in 1959, A Raisin in the Sun made Hansberry, at age 29, the youngest American and the first black playwright to win the Best Play of the Year Award from the New York Drama Critics. A film version of the play was released in 1961, featuring its original Broadway cast of Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Claudia McNeil and Louis Gossett, Jr., among others.

Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart does not shy away from the fact that Hansberry, like other black artists, such as Robeson, novelist Richard Wright, singer-actor Harry Belafonte, Dee and Hughes, turned to the Communist Party, seeing the fight against racism as part of the fight against capitalism.

That A Raisin in the Sun was not an exclusivist work, that it was intended to illuminate the lives of working people of all races and ethnicities, helped account for its wide popular appeal.

“Mama: Oh—So now it’s life. Money is life. Once upon a time freedom used to be life—now it’s money. I guess the world really do change. . .

Walter: No—it was always money, Mama. We just didn’t know about it.” (A Raisin in the Sun)

According to director Strain, Hansberry was influenced, among other works, by Irish dramatist Seán O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock (1924), a play about the Dublin slums during the Irish civil war in 1922. Hansberry’s play is humane and sincere. If it does not rise to the dramatic heights of O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock or The Plough and the Stars (1926), the stagnant, conformist atmosphere in the US has a great deal to do with it.

Interestingly, Hansberry’s friend, singer Nina Simone, quipped that when she and the writer got together, “It was always about Marx, Lenin and revolution—typical girl talk.” In his memoirs, another friend, Belafonte, states that in his early years, he moved in circles of “socialists and communists [who] embraced the working class as the bedrock of a new political order.” Notably, on June 18, 1953, on the eve of their marriage, Hansberry and Nemiroff were picketing the Chicago Federal Building against the execution scheduled for the following day of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, Communist Party members who were convicted of spying for the Soviet Union.

Hansberry once wrote: “A status not freely chosen or entered into by an individual or a group is necessarily one of oppression and the oppressed are by their nature (i.e., oppressed) forever in ferment and agitation against their condition and what they understand to be their oppressors. If not by overt rebellion or revolution, then in the thousand and one ways they will devise with and without consciousness to alter their condition.”

It is not clear when Hansberry left the Communist Party. In an interview with Harold Isaacs, she apparently told him that she “had quietly left in the late 1950s.” FBI spies concluded that Hansberry had quit the party before its 1957 convention. …

Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart includes a video clip of the 1963 meeting between Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Hansberry, Belafonte, James Baldwin and other civil rights activists, which ended with Hansberry’s walkout. The documentary does not mention that after the meeting Kennedy ordered FBI director J. Edgar Hoover to increase the surveillance on Baldwin and several others. One of the results was an FBI report labeling the gay Baldwin a “pervert” and “communist.”

A few citations from A Raisin in the Sun may help shed light on Hansberry’s political thinking and her general view of life. The universality of her concerns is expressed in lines such as these: “I’m just tired of hearing about God all the time. What has He got to do with anything?… I’m not going to be immoral or commit crimes because I don’t believe. I don’t even think about that. I just get so tired of Him getting the credit for things the human race achieves through its own effort. Now, there simply is no God. There’s only man. And it’s he who makes miracles.”

Or this passage that speaks to the question of class: “Life is. Sure enough. Between the takers and the ‘tooken.’ I’ve figured it out finally. Yeah. Some of us always getting ‘tooken.’”

… Tracy Heather Strain’s Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart provides a valuable examination of a remarkable, courageous woman who fought against the existing social order on the grounds that “an oppressive society oppresses everyone.”

In a 1988 introduction to A Raisin in the Sun, Nemiroff wrote that the play “will remain no less pertinent. For at the deepest level it is not a specific situation but the human condition, human aspiration, and human relationships—the persistence of dreams, of the bonds and conflicts between men and women, parents and children, old ways and new, and the endless struggle against human oppression, whatever the forms it may take, and for individual fulfillment, recognition, and liberation—that are at the heart of such plays. It is not surprising therefore that in each generation we recognize ourselves in them anew.”

Lorraine Hansberry’s “Les Blancs” is a radical testament to her global foresight.

3 thoughts on “African American playwright Lorraine Hansberry, new film

  1. Pingback: Afro-Asian solidarity during the Cold War | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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