Who was Lorraine Hansberry? A First Among Women

January 4, 2018


On March 11, 1959, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun opened on Broadway and changed the face of American theater forever. As the first-ever black woman to write a play performed on Broadway, she did not shy away from richly drawn characters and unprecedented subject matter. A Raisin in the Sun attracted record crowds and earned the coveted top prize from the New York Drama Critics’ Circle. While the play is seen as a groundbreaking work of art, the timely story of Hansberry’s own short life is far less known.

Lorraine Hansberry Firsts

American Masters – Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart is the first in-depth presentation of Hansberry’s complex life, using her personal papers and archives, including home movies and rare photos, as source material. The documentary – the first in the 32nd season of American Masters, the award-winning PBS series – explores the influences that shaped Hansberry’s childhood, future art and activism. Filmmaker and Peabody Award-winner Tracy Heather Strain (Unnatural Causes, I’ll Make Me a World, American Experience: Building the Alaska Highway) crafts the story of one woman who believed, like many of her generation, that words could change society. Family, friends and colleagues, including Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee, Harry Belafonte, her sister Mamie Hansberry, Lloyd Richards, Amiri Baraka and Louis Gossett, Jr., share their personal memories of Hansberry, offering an intimate look at a young woman who was, as Poitier says in the film, “reaching into the essence of who we were, who we are, and where we came from.”

A playwright, journalist, and activist, Hansberry died from pancreatic cancer at age 34 on January 12, 1965.

Narrated by acclaimed actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson (The Fighting TemptationsA Raisin in the Sun) and featuring the voice of Tony Award-winning actress Anika Noni Rose (A Raisin in the SunDreamgirls) as Hansberry, the documentary portrays the writer’s lifetime commitment to fighting injustice and how she found her way to art—the theater—as her medium for activism at a crucial time for black civil rights. 

American Masters – Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart also explores her concealed identity as a lesbian and the themes of sexual orientation and societal norms in her works. The film title comes from Hansberry’s view that “one cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world.”

Lorraine Hansberry Photo Gallery

About American Masters

This Lorraine Hansberry documentary is part of American Masters’ year-long Inspiring Woman online campaign which includes podcasts, a web series now streaming on pbs.org/inspiringwomanYouTube and Facebook, and story submissions. People can share stories of inspirational women in their own lives via text, images or videos on the Inspiring Woman website or via Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #InspiringWomanPBS.

Launched in 1986, American Masters has earned 28 Emmy Awards — including 10 for Outstanding Non-Fiction Series and five for Outstanding Non-Fiction Special — 12 Peabodys, an Oscar, three Grammys, two Producers Guild Awards and many other honors. The series is a production of THIRTEEN PRODUCTIONS LLC for WNET and also seen on the WORLD channel.

American Masters – Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart is a production of Lorraine Hansberry Documentary Project, LLC in co-production with Independent Television Service and Black Public Media in association with The Film Posse, Chiz Schultz Inc. and American Masters Pictures. Materials from the Lorraine Hansberry Properties Trust were provided by special consultant Joi Gresham. Tracy Heather Strain is producer, director and writer. Randall MacLowry is producer and editor. Chiz Schultz is the executive producer. Executive producer for ITVS is Sally Jo Fifer, and Jacquie Jones for Black Public Media. Michael Kantor is American Masters’ series executive producer.

How to Watch

The documentary premieres nationwide Friday, January 19 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) and will be available to stream the following day via pbs.org/americanmasters, here on Thirteen.org, and the THIRTEEN Explore and PBS apps.