“My name is Lorraine Hansberry. I am a writer. I was born on the South Side of Chicago. I was born black and a female. I was born in a Depression after one World War and came into my adolescence during another. I, like all of you, have seen incredible displays of man’s inhumanity to man.”
So begins “Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,” a fascinating documentary about, to my mind, the most significant playwright ever to be born in Chicago. Tracy Heather Strain’s film for the American Masters series, which premieres at 8 p.m. Friday on WTTW-CH. 11 (www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters), is narrated by actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson and features Lorraine’s sister, Mamie Hansberry, alongside others many who well knew the playwright (Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier). The film — which, given the advanced age of many of the participants, will be a crucial part of the historical record about Hansberry — makes extensive use of the subject’s own words, as expressed on the page and also in interviews, and also as voiced here by actress Anika Noni Rose. Indeed, Hansberry’s determined humanism, her constant and clearly articulated conviction that a racist society dehumanizes everybody, courses through the film. She never allowed anyone to intimidate her into silence.
Hansberry did not grow up in poverty but as a member of Chicago’s black middle class. But she still was a product of segregated Chicago with its restrictive covenants and deeds. Carl A. Hansberry, Lorraine’s father, understood very early on that racism in Chicago was rooted not in Jim Crow-like regulation but, more covertly, in the city’s rules about real estate. The elder Hansberry tested the racist covenants up to the highest courts of the land, and, in doing so, he not only opened up more residences for the city’s African-Americans, but also he gave his formidably talented daughter the raw material for a play that would revolutionize the American theater.
That, of course, would be “A Raisin in the Sun.” Clybourne Park — the white neighborhood where Lena Younger hopes to move — was a fictional locale, but it was modeled partly on Washington Park, then a white neighborhood, and partly on Lincoln Park. Call somewhere Clybourne Park and any Chicagoan knows the locale about which you are writing.
There is much in the film that you might not know about Hansberry: her father’s eventual disillusionment with his own country and the impact of his departure from Chicago for Mexico City, and his early death, on his beloved daughter; Hansberry’s early career as a New York journalist; her activism as a open member of the Communist Party; her young-in-life friendship with Paul Robeson and other radicals. Hansberry was on J. Edgar Hoover’s radar, even though she was just 22 years old.
Hansberry did not remain in Chicago after attending the University of Wisconsin. By her early 20s, she was married to a fellow radical, a white, Jewish guy named Robert Nemiroff. They lived at 337 Bleecker St. and together imbued all that was Greenwich Village in the 1950s. But there is no question that Chicago and its theater formed her artistry. She had been exposed to Chicago theater as a child. And she rapidly figured out that playwriting was a way to make people both think and feel, and to express the ideas in which she believed. It was the theater that would allow Hansberry to fight.
Thus, like a few other great female journalists with roots in Chicago, Hansberry left the newsroom to become a playwright.
“Lorraine was always over a typewriter,” her sister says at one point in the film, noting both Hansberry’s determination to be a writer and her constant application to the task. “She smoked and drank coffee and just wrote all the time. I was fascinated by that because I just thought that was what a writer did.”
Well, that is what a writer does. A writer like Lorraine Hansberry. A writer committed to radical honesty.
Journalist Isabel Wilkerson is at work on a major and long-overdue Hansberry biography, with the cooperation of her estate. Wilkerson appears in the documentary, and you can discern here the outlines of the book that will emerge.
“One cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know and react to the miseries that afflict this world,” Hansberry wrote. That encapsulates her most famous play. And this documentary has the benefit of the crystal-clear memories of its star, Sidney Poitier.
As I suspected it might, the film glosses over the early production history of “A Raisin in the Sun,” which played the Blackstone Theatre in Chicago before it arrived in New York. In Chicago, it was the beneficiary of a strikingly supportive review by Claudia Cassidy in this newspaper. Cassidy’s critique was not without some shrewdly coded phraseology. What Cassidy did not say was as significant as what she did. But without her, I’d argue, the play, which was struggling to reach an audience, would never have reached New York, and America would be the poorer.
After “Raisin” hit in New York, Hansberry became a celebrity, and she used it well. She did not turn down interviews. She did not fear a debate: Mike Wallace even had the gall to ask her if the favorable response to her play had been a sentimental reaction to her race and gender. She did not back down.
Hansberry once wrote, “I think when I get my health back I shall go into the South and find out what kind of revolutionary I am.”
She did not get her health back, and, in the late footage in this film, Hansberry looks much older than her 35 years. She didn’t get to make the revisions she wanted to make to her last play, “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window,” a brilliant exploration of the costs of commitment. Nobody understood the play — which finally was rescued in 2016 by the Goodman Theatre, in a production directed by Anne Kauffman that I’m convinced would have delighted Hansberry, a writer who never stayed in her lane.
Inevitably, the film ends sadly. Malcolm X and Sammy Davis, Jr. were both at her funeral. Nina Simone sang. “She had deep roots in her people,” singer and activist Paul Robeson said. “Remarkable in one so young.” Just imagine what Hansberry would have gone on to do.
“What would she have been at the age of 54?” Harry Belafonte asks in the film, posing a question that long has haunted me, too. “What volumes would have been written?”
Best, I think, to focus on what Hansberry had chance to do.
Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.