For Lorraine Hansberry, ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ Was Just the Start

LaTanya Richardson Jackson, the narrator of “Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart,” whose performance as Lena Younger in the 2014 Broadway revival of “A Raisin in the Sun” received a Tony Award nomination, sees the character of Beneatha, Lena’s adult daughter, as ahead of her time. Not only does she turn down the advances, and in one case a marriage proposal, from her two male suitors, but she also plans to be a doctor and proclaims to be atheist in a staunchly Christian household.

“She had a very feminist, ‘why not me’ point of view, whereas her mother just assumed the status quo of ‘your brother should lead the family,’” Ms. Jackson said. “She respected that, but she also challenged that his notion of living was any better than hers.”

Like Beneatha, Hansberry was an intellectual in an era when women and African-Americans were denied full admission into that rarefied category. “The stereotype of African-Americans in this country was that we weren’t thinkers, but Hansberry was thinking, batting around ideas, putting forth ‘what ifs’ and challenging suppositions that everyone else took for granted,” Ms. Jackson said.

The film emphasizes that despite the success of “A Raisin in the Sun,” Hansberry was frustrated with the common interpretation of it as a play of optimism or integration. Her family history helped shape her beliefs about the limits of turning to the courts for racial justice. Her parents’ legal challenge of Chicago’s restrictive racial housing covenants, in a case that went to the Supreme Court in 1940, was successful, but black and white people remained segregated and mob violence often greeted the African-American families that moved in, such as hers. And “my father died a disillusioned exile in another country,” Hansberry lamented at that Town Hall meeting.

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Hansberry, center, was a well-known member of the civil rights movement, but a new documentary explores her more…

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