TIFF 2017 Review: Sighted Eyes, Feeling Heart

Making its world premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, the documentary Sighted Eyes, Feeling Heart chronicles the life of Lorraine Hansberry, best known as the playwright of A Raisin in the Sun. Despite Hansberry’s profound influence and accomplishments, she has yet to receive a definitive document about her life. A Raisin in the Sun made Hansberry the first black woman to have a play on Broadway, and provided a rare opportunity for African American actors and actresses when it debuted in 1959. Tanya Richardson Jackson and Anika Noni Rose, two cast members from the 2014 Broadway revival of A Raisin in the Sun, narrate and voice Hansberry’s writing for the documentary.

Hansberry grew up in a middle class black family in South Side, Chicago, to a father who used his wealth to fight segregation and racism through the legal system, though mostly to no avail. His determination and subsequent failures sculpted Hansberry into the radical young writer she later became. Her plays and published writing explored the potential for African Americans to access the American dream, challenged complacency in political allies, and challenged the American public to reconsider how to define black art.

In addition to her early life and rise to fame in the art world, Sighted Eyes, Feeling Heartalso delves into her private life, and namely her proclaimed sexual identity. As Hansberry wrote publically about her experiences as a black woman, under a pseudonym, she also wrote about her experience as a lesbian woman. Through her journals and notes, Sighted Eyes, Feeling Heart reveals Hansberry’s unguarded nature and thoughts to viewers, which were often more complicated than her public persona.

Hansberry advocated for concepts like intersectionality and allyship through her writing long before they were buzzwords, and her struggles, doubts, and hopes for change are still relevant today, in a divided and volatile era. As in Hansberry’s writing, Sighted Eyes, Feeling Heart explores universal themes through the story of an individual.

Sighted Eyes, Feeling Heart is a remarkable achievement for director Tracy Heather Strain, who spent fourteen years putting the film together. Strain compiled documents from dozens of archives across the country and conducted interviews with over thirty first-hand accounts, including the original cast and producers of A Raisin in the Sun.

Sighted Eyes, Feeling Heart places a necessary spotlight on an important figure from the Civil Rights Movement, providing an in-depth portrait of a complex artist balancing multiple identities: class, race, and sexuality. Strain develops a holistic portrait of Hansberry and interpretation of her work, giving Hansberry’s life and work the spotlight that more women of color should be given.

Sighted Eyes, Feeling Heart will premiere on PBS next February.

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