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Lorraine Hansberry Documentary To Have World Debut at TIFF: An Interview with Tracy Heather Strain

August 29, 2017

Congrats to FC member Tracy Heather Strain and team! Her documentary film SIGHTED EYES/FEELING HEART about playwright and civil rights trailblazer Lorraine Hansberry will make its world debut at the Toronto International Film Festival. FC had a chance to interview Tracy about what inspired this film and the long road to making a multi-year documentary production about one of the 20th century’s most vital voices. 

Tracy is an award-winning film/video director, producer, writer and researcher of documentaries and nonfiction media. She has created and collaborated on range of projects for public television, museums, schools and small businesses. She is greatly interested in using emerging media technologies to present a range of connected, immersive stories on a variety of platforms which also may allow opportunities for audiences to share their own experiences. Strain is co-founder of The Film Posse, a Boston-based production company.


Who was Lorraine Hansberry and what drew you to her work as a subject for a documentary?

Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) is best known as the author of the play A Raisin in the Sun, which premiered in 1959 when she was only 28 years old. It was the first play written by a black woman and directed by a black man to be performed on Broadway, and Hansberry won the coveted New York Drama Critics Circle Award. Even though she died of cancer six years after Raisin opened, Lorraine Hansberry’s story is bigger than her most famous play. Hansberry was someone who believed that she could use her words to help change the world, and she did that literally using her voice and in her writing to speak out against injustice. The title of our documentary comes from a portion of speech she gave ten days before A Raisin In The Sun opened on Broadway: “One cannot live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries that afflict this world.”

I was introduced to Lorraine Hansberry when I was 17 because my grandmother took my sister and me to see a performance at the Harrisburg Community Theater of To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, the play about Hansberry’s life. It was quite a revelation to see and hear a young black woman who was really smart speaking about things that I had noticed, describing things that were similar to incidents that I’d experienced and yearning to translate it all in a way that other people could understand.

When and where does one hear and see stories that include the experiences of middle class black Americans? To paraphrase Hansberry discussing the effect a particular play had on her, I would say that Hansberry’s story as I understood it back in 1977, “entered my consciousness, and stayed there.”

Years passed until we hit the independent film movement of the 1980s. And then for some reason between Spike Lee’s call to “make Black films” and seeing the dramatic feature film Frances about Frances Farmer, I decided that there should be a film about Lorraine Hansberry. I never really imagined that between the early 1980s and 2017, that Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart would be the first feature-length film about her—and that I was going to make it.

What made you feel her story would lend itself to visual storytelling?

The first two feature-length films I ever directed, wrote and produced were for a six-part series called I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Arts, which was a Blackside production that ended up winning us Peabody awards. In one of the films, I told a story about the limits and opportunities for African-American artists in the post-World War II period. I crafted a short opportunity segment about the unlikely story of Hansberry’s play making it to Broadway and becoming a success.

This made me confident that at least some of her story could be told visually. It wasn’t until I was given access to the material controlled by the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust that I felt more confident about material available to visualize her life before and after Raisin. We found a lot of other images of Hansberry in other places, but unfortunately there were very few images of her and her family in Chicago. We had to rely on some limited re-enactments for our documentary for various moments for which we had no images.

What was the most challenging aspect of this journey?

Raising money for the documentary film was the most challenging aspect of this journey and remains the most challenging for the Lorraine Hansberry Documentary Project. Historical documentaries are very expensive due to personnel, archival rights and music costs. There are also a lot of expenses involved in getting into a festival and once you get in, preparing materials for the screenings, and then getting to and from the event.

We have a lot of material that didn’t make it into the documentary, and we would like to make it available to the public in other media platforms, including our forthcoming website, but they all require funds to develop and produce. So, our journey continues.

What was the most rewarding?

I think the most rewarding will be if it turns out that people are inspired by the story we present about Lorraine Hansberry. We are quite excited about having our world premiere at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival!

What role did FC play in helping you with this project?

Filmmakers Collaborative has played a vital role in the development and production of this documentary. It has taken so long that there have been four different executive directors involved, and each was extremely supportive of me, the team and this project. Sometimes we needed information or money released on short notice, and FC leadership got back to us promptly and professionally. We ran our Kickstarter campaign through Filmmakers Collaborative so that our backers could receive tax-deductions. We are grateful for FC’s support and sponsorship.

What would you say to encourage documentary filmmakers who embark on multi-year projects?

I would not encourage documentary filmmakers to embark on multi-year projects! It is so hard on so many levels. But if they do, they should keep excellent records—especially financial ones that include their own spending on the project and what each and every person did on the project and keep contact information up to date. They should note in their financial books whether your personal money spent is a loan or a contribution to the project.

I recommend that filmmakers make sure that they understand the consequences of receiving support from the various entities who fund documentaries. And finally, it is important to have people in your life that believe in what you are trying to accomplish, no matter how long it takes. 

We are grateful for the generous support of our sponsors:

Massachusetts Cultural Council
Lowel Cultural Council
Cabot Family Charitable Trust
Liberty Mutual Foundation
City of Boston Arts and Culture