As Interest in Lorraine Hansberry Grows, A Documentary Filmmaker Steps in

Lorraine Hansberry

Lorraine Hansberry in the early 1960s (Photo credit: Corbis Bettman, courtesy of Tracy Strain)

On June 8 2014, a revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin in the Sun, which debuted on Broadway in 1959, won a Tony for Best Revival; Kenny Leon won for Best Director; and Sophie Okonedo  won  a Tony for the part of Ruth Younger, a role originated by Ruby Dee. Almost fifty years after her death, this playwright is drawing new interest. Tracy Heather Strain is a documentary filmmaker who recently received an NEH grant to partially fund the first full-length documentary feature on Lorraine Hansberry. In this interview with Judith Smith, who wrote about Hansberry in her book Visions of Belonging (2004) and serves as a consulting humanities scholar on the Lorraine Hansberry Documentary Project team, Strain discusses the opportunities Hansberry’s story presents.

Why have you launched a Kickstarter campaign?

In April we were awarded a highly competitive grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities in support of the first ever feature-length documentary about Lorraine Hansberry. In order to receive the money, we need to raise the rest of our budget as quickly as possible.

We decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to enlist as many Hansberry fans and admirers as possible to help us reach our goal of releasing the film by 2015, which is the 50th anniversary of Lorraine Hansberry’s death.

We need to raise $100,000 by June 20, 2104 at 8:57pm EDT. It’s all or nothing, and as of now, we have about $40,000 left to raise. All donations to the project are tax-deductible through our nonprofit fiscal sponsor Filmmakers Collaborative.

What first drew you to Hansberry? What about her were you interested in then, and what are you interested in now?

I’ve been interested in Lorraine Hansberry since I was 17 years old. My grandmother took me and my sister to see To Be Young, Gifted and Black, the play about Hansberry, at the Harrisburg Community Theatre in Pennsylvania. My sister and I grew up with our parents in a primarily white neighborhood in a near suburb that was statistically diverse, but most of the African Americans lived in one neighborhood. We had a very happy, middle class mid-1960s-1970s upbringing, but it was laced with confusing and painful bouts of racial discrimination in school and out. As children, we were barred from swimming in most public or private pools, and even though we played every day with our white neighbors, their parents did not allow us to swim in their pools. Lorraine Hansberry’s words, as presented in To Be Young, Gifted and Black, resonated with me and helped me understand what I was seeing around me. I felt less alone and more powerful after my introduction to Lorraine Hansberry.

Lorraine Hansberry’s story fascinates me today because she is organically connected to the major movements underway in the mid-20th century—The Great Migration, The Great Depression, World War II, postwar artistic and cultural expression, The Cold War, decolonizing momentum in Africa, and movements for peace, anti-colonialism, and rights for African-Americans, women, and gays and lesbians—many of which still dominate our discourse today. Her words from the past speak forcefully to today’s challenging issues, but she’s been miscast with so much focus just on A Raisin in the Sun, typically relegating her to status as a sort of pearl-wearing, integrationist icon of middle class black aspirations during the civil rights era.

I’m also interested in her struggles as an artist, a creative thinker. On a basic level it is interesting to understand how she dealt with having writer’s block. Then after she became successful, she negotiated life as a public figure who wanted to make her art count. She was deeply committed to using art as a tool for social change.

What are the most compelling questions about Hansberry that you want the film to open up for viewers?

At a time in society where the majority didn’t particularly want to hear from women, blacks and the young, how did Hansberry find and develop her powerful, confident voice? How does her work call attention to the late 1940s and 1950s skirmishes in the freedom struggle? When success offered her a platform, she seized all opportunities to speak, but was she really heard—and understood? And could she challenge the unspoken celebrity tokenism of “terms and conditions” that brought her to her seat at the table, as some might say now? Our documentary will show how from a young age, Hansberry was schooled in activism, gained an international perspective and acquired her love of art, literature and books.

What did Hansberry gain from being a part of the Black Left in New York?

Hansberry arrived in Harlem in 1950 and discovered in the Black Left a community that would be key in nurturing her development as a writer, activist, playwright, public speaker, and black feminist. Her political voice and worldview was sharpened during her years working as a writer at Freedom, Paul Robeson’s communist newspaper. She wrote about all sorts of issues and reviewed books and plays. The newspaper office was in the same building that was home to a number of radical organizations engaged in improving conditions for black people. So, she was around many talented, motivated movers and shakers who helped expand her worldview, and nurture her talents and aspirations. All of them were on HUAC’s subversives list

When and how did Hansberry’s developing analysis of “the woman question” expand her thinking about sexual expression?

Hansberry’s feminism reflected the growing trend on the part of women on the left, beginning in the 1940s, who began to see a relationship or connection between the “Negro Question” and “The Woman Question. In Manhattan, she worked with womenin the Black Left, including Alice Childress and Claudia Jones, who produced important writing that would have been considered black feminist texts if the term were used back then. In 1951, she and her colleagues were among a group of 130 women who met in Washington, DC as part of The Sojourners For Truth and Justice, a short-lived radical black women’s group that protested Jim Crow, the Korean War, and unjustly imprisoned black women. Through her reporting about the Sojourners for Freedom and meeting with women delegates at an international peace conference in Uruguay in 1952, Hansberry began to develop her understanding of the need for women’s political autonomy.

Another major influence, according to Hansberry herself, was Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, which she read in 1953. Her copy was marked up by her and kept in a handy place near her desk.

Hansberry’s letters to The Ladder, an early lesbian publication, showed her looking to lesbians for help in understanding her own sexuality, and in developing the theoretical insights connecting gender and sexuality.  She wrote that she was inspired by The Ladder’s “energy and courage, ” and said that she felt that “women, without wishing to foster any separatist notions, homo or hetero, do indeed have a need for their own publications and organizations” (May, 1957). She hoped “to formulate a new and possible concept that homosexual persecution and condemnation has at its roots not only social ignorance but a philosophically active anti-feminist dogma” (August, 1957).

What complex issues face the film in fully conveying Hansberry’s sexuality—how she wanted to present then, what barriers might have kept her from living more openly as a woman desiring women, and how we understand those issues now?  What kind of evidence is there for you to use, what are problems with the evidence?

Hansberry’s sexuality is an area that we are still researching. For some people, it is a very controversial aspect of her narrative.  These letters to The Ladder and One as well as her diaries have been publicized recently (see the recent exhibit on OutHistory “Lorraine Hansberry: A Museum Show Archive”) and document that Hansberry identified herself at times as “homosexual,” “lesbian,” and “married lesbian”—and was conflicted about her sexuality. However, we are looking for more archival materials and more accounts of the Greenwich Village lesbian scene in the late 1950s and early 1960s to determine what we can say in the film and how to shape our narrative. Can anyone help us find a group of women who in the early 1990s interviewed Hansberry’s long-time partner, who died in 1995?

So far, the individuals we have contacted have been reluctant to speak on camera about their respective relationships with Hansberry or their impressions of the Greenwich Village lesbian scene in this period. Lorraine Hansberry did not make it known publicly that she was a lesbian, and the women we have spoken with felt that it was still inappropriate to “out” her or even themselves.

A recent panel discussion at the Schomburg Center, attended by my co-director Jamila Wignot, titled “Outing Lorraine,” addressed the issue of whether it was appropriate to “out” someone, in this case Lorraine Hansberry, after death. Some were okay with it and others against. Some in the audience had no idea that Hansberry privately identified herself as a lesbian and wrote, almost anonymously, of the problem of the married lesbian who is “inclined to have her most intense emotional and physical reactions directed toward other women, quite beyond any comparative thing she might have ever felt for her husband.” Some viewers will be introduced to this aspect of Hansberry’s life from watching our film, and we hope that the film helps them understand this important realm of her experience.

How did Hansberry depart from convention in her public self-presentation before 1957? What obstacles stood in the way of Hansberry’s more publicly identifying herself as a lesbian and as a sexual non-conformist after 1957? 

What is clear is that Lorraine Hansberry probably was not a conformist at any point in her life. However, the publicity for Raisin in the Sun presented her as a happily married woman even though she was no longer living with her husband and had begun to explore relationships with women. Anything else would have been a distraction. 

Hansberry had written critically about the glorification of women as sex objects, and we can surmise, based on the times in which she lived, that coming out would have sensationalized her sexuality and jeopardized her opportunities to speak out in support of the black freedom struggle—her first priority. She may have also been concerned to protect her play, A Raisin in the Sun, and its public reception, but at this moment, I don’t have any evidence of exactly why she made the decisions she did, and I doubt I’ll ever know for sure. And I don’t think we can predict how she would have chosen to live her life if she were alive today.

This documentary will explore all these various threads of Lorraine Hansberry’s complex life in what we hope will be a dramatically compelling two-hour narrative. We look forward to presenting additional wonderful material we’ve collected via content-rich interactive stories on a variety of media platforms.