60 years before ‘Black Panther, there was Lorraine Hansberry

I’m so glad I saw “Black Panther” (along with seemingly half the country) before sitting down to watch “Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,” the new documentary about the life of Lorraine Hansberry.

Watching the two films in tandem gave me new insight into the woman who gifted us with her masterpiece, “A Raisin in the Sun.” Lorraine Hansberry was not just trying to bring new voices to the stage — though she certainly did that.

This fierce and provocative artist wanted to usher in a new era for African-Americans. She wanted future generations to think of black voices the same way they thought of white voices — that is, as voices that were absolutely central to the telling of the American story.

There’s a great moment in the documentary when “A Raisin in the Sun” has a test run in Philadelphia. Everything’s riding on this last-ditch effort to get Broadway to notice Hansberry’s play.

On the third night in Philly, the play’s director, Lloyd Richards, notices that the theater is starting to fill up with people he doesn’t usually see at plays. So he wanders into the lobby, and …

“I saw this black woman going up to get a ticket,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Why are you paying $4.80 to see Sidney Poitier here when you can see him on film for 85 cents?’

“She said, ‘The word’s going around in my neighborhood that there’s something going on down here that concerns me. And so I had to come down here to find out what it was all about.’”

Something going on that concerns me.

“A Raisin in the Sun” did more than deliver new customers to Broadway. It delivered a powerful message to the arbiters of mainstream taste — that there is a large and interested audience for stories of lives that don’t resemble their lives at all.

Black folks weren’t the only ones snapping up tickets to the play. White audiences, it turned out, were just as hungry to hear these untold black stories told.

Something going on that concerns me.

With “A Raisin in the Sun,” many white Americans realized for the first time that what black Americans had to say concerned them as well.

Hollywood is a slow learner, so it’s only taken 60 years for this lesson to sink in. But with the mainstream success of “Black Panther,” we see once again the power of African-American storytelling to transform a cultural product — in this case, the comic-book superhero action movie.

And that was Lorraine Hansberry’s other agenda, besides giving voice to the ordinary black folks she fiercely believed in. She was also charting a future in which the African-American voice was central to every story we tell, whether it’s a blockbuster at the cineplex or American history itself.

“Write about the world as it is, and as it ought to be,” Hansberry exhorted a group of young writers just before her death. “Write about our people. Tell their story.”

Dig deeper

“Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” is the first feature-length documentary to explore Lorraine Hansberry’s brief but spectacular life — as a child of black activists, as a journalist and radical intellectual, and lastly, as a storyteller who authored a play for the ages before her life was cut short.

It’s a wonderful film but, as I was watching it, I kept thinking that something was … off a bit. The glasses and clothing styles of the people interviewed on camera did not look very 2018 to me.

Then I looked up Lloyd Richards (pictured), who’s featured in the film. He died in 2006.

Well, as it turns out, the director of this film, Tracy Heather Strain needed fourteen years to get her project to audiences.

I don’t know what the holdup was, though I can’t help but notice that this film finally got made after another documentary about Hansberry’s good friend James Baldwin became a surprise hit in 2016.

“Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” aired on the PBS anthology “American Masters” in January. Your station may be rerunning it; check your listings. Better yet, watch it right now using Passport, the $60/year member benefit for PBS fans. I’m a fan.

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