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For Lorraine Hansberry, ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ Was Just the Start

For Lorraine Hansberry, 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.

Lorraine Hansberry was the first African-American woman to have a play produced on Broadway, with “A Raisin in the Sun.” ,David Attie

A few months before her death from pancreatic cancer in early 1965, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry spoke about a letter to the editor that she sent to, but that was ultimately rejected by, The New York Times. Standing before a racially integrated Town Hall audience in New York, Ms. Hansberry, then 34, sought to counter the growing white liberal criticism of the racial militancy expressed by a younger generation of African-Americans.

“And I wrote to The Times and said, you know, ‘Can’t you understand that this is the perspective from which we are now speaking?’” Hansberry said. “It isn’t as if we got up today and said, you know, ‘what can we do to irritate America?’ you know. It’s because that since 1619, Negroes have tried every method of communication, of transformation of their situation from petition to the vote, everything. We’ve tried it all. There isn’t anything that hasn’t been exhausted.”

This image of Hansberry — exasperated, fatigued and sympathetic to the nationalist ideologies that would later blossom in the Black Power movement — might surprise those who know her only through the success of “A Raisin in the Sun.” With that much-lauded play, about a working-class African-American family on the verge of racially desegregating a Chicago suburb, Hansberry became the first African-American woman to have a show produced on Broadway, in 1959.

But for Tracy Heather Strain, showing there was much more to Hansberry than “A Raisin in the Sun” was the imperative driving the making of “Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,” which debuts Jan. 19 on “American Masters” on PBS. This includes her radical leftist politics as well as her struggle to identify publicly as a black lesbian in the 1950s and 1960s. “I started with the notion that people did not know who Lorraine Hansberry was,” Ms. Strain said. “I didn’t either, really. You see these pictures, she’s wearing the pearls, her hair’s all done. She’s an icon, the picture of success during the civil rights movement.”

Ms. Strain, 57, was 17 when she discovered Hansberry. But it was not through “A Raisin in the Sun,” which has had critically acclaimed revivals on Broadway (in 2004 and 2014) and has inspired other work like Bruce Norris’s “Clybourne Park” and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s“Beneatha’s Place.” Her introduction came in 1978 in her hometown, Harrisburg, Pa., during a performance of “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” a play that Hansberry’s ex-husband and literary executor, Robert Nemiroff, adapted posthumously from her unpublished letters and diary entries.

“I’d never encountered a young black woman sharing her inner thoughts before, and those thoughts and observations were remarkably similar to the ones that I had about things like race, gender and class,” Ms. Strain said. “It stayed in the back of my mind for a long time.”

As she pursued a career in documentaries, producing and directing documentaries like “Unnatural Causes” (2008) and “I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts” (1999), Ms. Strain found herself drawn to her subject. She produced and directed a short TV segment on “A Raisin in the Sun” in 1999. Five years later, she met with Chiz Schultz, a film producer who not only had exclusive access to Hansberry’s materials, but was also in search of a director for his Hansberry documentary. (Mr. Schultz is an executive producer on the film, which was budgeted at $1.5 million.)

Through interviews with the original cast of the stage and film versions of “A Raisin in the Sun,” including Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Louis Gossett Jr., as well as her fellow artist-activist, Harry Belafonte, Ms. Strain tries to capture the revolutionary nature of Hansberry’s play. “It was like Lorraine opened a new chapter in theater,” Ms. Dee recalls in the film, describing the standing ovation and riveting response on opening night. “That included black people.”

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.

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“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 Simonehave). 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.”