LaTanya Richardson Jackson, the narrator of “Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,” whose performance as Lena Younger in the 2014 Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” received a Tony Award nomination, sees the character of Beneatha, Lena’s adult daughter, as ahead of her time. Not only does she turn down the advances, and in one case a marriage proposal, from her two male suitors, but she also plans to be a doctor and proclaims to be atheist in a staunchly Christian household.
“She had a very feminist, ‘why not me’ point of view, whereas her mother just assumed the status quo of ‘your brother should lead the family,’” Ms. Jackson said. “She respected that, but she also challenged that his notion of living was any better than hers.”
Like Beneatha, Hansberry was an intellectual in an era when women and African-Americans were denied full admission into that rarefied category. “The stereotype of African-Americans in this country was that we weren’t thinkers, but Hansberry was thinking, batting around ideas, putting forth ‘what ifs’ and challenging suppositions that everyone else took for granted,” Ms. Jackson said.
The film emphasizes that despite the success of “A Raisin in the Sun,” Hansberry was frustrated with the common interpretation of it as a play of optimism or integration. Her family history helped shape her beliefs about the limits of turning to the courts for racial justice. Her parents’ legal challenge of Chicago’s restrictive racial housing covenants, in a case that went to the Supreme Court in 1940, was successful, but black and white people remained segregated and mob violence often greeted the African-American families that moved in, such as hers. And “my father died a disillusioned exile in another country,” Hansberry lamented at that Town Hall meeting.
Hansberry responded to her father’s fate by moving beyond theater to pursue her larger goal of social change. Seeking to underscore the racial particularities of her play, for example, she tried again with a film version of “A Raisin in the Sun.” The studio rejected her first two screenplay drafts and finally accepted the third one; ultimately, the film was not as successful as the play.
“Hansberry experimented with a variety of forms, which includes the essay, long-form fiction, short stories as well being a visual artist and a painter,” said Imani Perry, author of the forthcoming “Looking for Lorraine: A Life of Lorraine Hansberry” and a professor of African-American studies at Princeton. “And she was also was fairly ecumenical in terms of her political activism.” Hansberry was concerned with racial justice, colonialism and feminism; she joined the Communist Party and led the Young Progressives group at the University of Wisconsin in 1948.
For Hansberry, however, art was not simply an expression of her civil rights concerns but a space where she could wage racial and gender battles and find resolutions that were more liberating than the law.
The documentary also wrestles directly with her sexuality, rather than avoid or allude to Hansberry’s same-sex relationships (the way some recent documentaries on James Baldwin and Nina Simone have). Her lesbianism was a source of conflict and comfort and helped shape her feminist politics. The film also recognizes that even though Hansberry never denied her attraction to women, she did not actively publicize it.
Instead, as she was working on the play that canonized her place in the civil rights movement, she was also writing, under the initials L.H.N. or L.N., letters to “The Ladder,” the first subscription-based lesbian publication in the United States. Hansberry’s preoccupation with women’s financial and sexual independence was not limited to these semi-anonymous letters, but a theme that she infused throughout her work, even “A Raisin in the Sun.”
Though she may have written in an era that precedes “what we think of mainstream feminist movement,” Ms. Perry said, “Hansberry stands out today because she was thinking about what a feminist future looks like.”