It has been a big year for the late playwright Lorraine Hansberry, whose large visage looks out from an outside wall at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. Director Kenny Leon’s Broadway production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” Hansberry’s most famous drama, won three Tonys on Sunday, including one for best revival of a play. That sold-out production stars Denzel Washington.
That drama, like Hansberry’s life, has been influential culture-wide, from songs such as Nina Simone’s “To Be Young Gifted and Black” to plays by Bruce Norris (the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Clybourne Park”) and Kwame Kwei-Armah (“Beneatha’s Place”).
“Raisin” itself has been a presence on both the big and small screens, starting with Daniel Petrie’s 1961 film.
And yet for all of Hansberry’s fame — she also penned “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window” and “Les Blancs,” in addition to be a civil rights activist — there has not been a substantive documentary focused on the life and contributions of this Chicago native who died in 1965.
But that will soon change.
For the past decade, producers Tracy Heather Strain and Randall MacLowry have crisscrossed the country on fundraising appeals and for interviews for their Lorraine Hansberry documentary project. They have interviewed Harry Belafonte, a friend of Hansberry’s, as well as Sidney Poitier, and Ruby Dee. Both Dee, who died this week, and Poitier starred in Petrie’s 1961 film.
MacLowry and Strain, who are taking minimal pay for their work, have raised a significant amount of the budget necessary to complete the documentary.
But they have taken to Kickstarter to get them closer to the end. There is additional fundraising that they are doing as well.
“This is the first feature documentary about Hansberry, dealing with her life in its entirety and looking at her connection to a wider spectrum of activism, from her work with Paul Robeson to civil rights,” said MacLowry.
He added that researching her life has been a revelatory process, not just about Hansberry or the time in which she lived, but about us, today.
“Her father was involved in a case to desegregate a Chicago neighborhood, which was the subject of ‘Raisin,’” he said. “She struggled with issues dealing with her sexual identity. By the end of her life, she had divorced her husband and was committed to her partner.”
Co-producer Strain said that she was most impressed by Hansberry’s global vision.
“Sure, her major focus was African-Americans, but she had an international perspective,” said Strain. “She really cared about human beings and wanted to end oppression for everyone. She saw herself tied to everyone.”
The producers hope to complete the documentary May 2015, when Hansberry would have turned 85.