Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart. Directed by Tracy Heather Strain. San Francisco: California Newsreel, 2017. 118 minutes.

Little Stones. Directed by Sophia Kruz. Portland, OR: Collective Eye Films, 2018. 87 minutes.

Reviewed by Megan Lewis

Educators looking for excellent pedagogical tools to teach about art and activism can benefit from screening the films reviewed here. Taking different approaches, one film presents a deeper exploration of the life and work of a single artist whereas the other brings together artists from different countries, working with different mediums, and taking on different issues. On their own or shown together, Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart and Little Stones could enrich classes in the fields of art, social movements, women’s and gender studies, and sociology.

Recently, efforts to diversify and make more inclusive theater arts curricula have taken center stage in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police, #BLM, and the #metoo movement. Tracy Heather Strain joins this conversation through her vivid portrait of one of the American theater’s most lauded, yet least understood, black female artists: Lorraine Hansberry (1930-65). The film Lorraine Hansberry: Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart is a wonderful tool with which to teach Hansberry’s contributions to theater, literature, the Civil Rights Movement, and LGBTQIA+ studies. Strain’s carefully researched, beautifully executed biography explores this playwright’s life and work more deeply, and with nuance.

Although Hansberry is most famous for A Raisin in the Sun, which earned her a New York Drama Critics Circle award for Best Play in 1957, the film also highlights her childhood in 1930s south Chicago, where her father taught her to strive beyond the confines of her race and class yet stay within standards of respectability. Strain traces the rise of a brilliant woman in her own right who finds her political voice through writing. The film chronicles Hansberry’s life in Harlem, where she wrote for Freedom, the black newspaper published by Paul Robeson. In New York she also befriended some notable the Civil Rights figures, including James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Douglas Turner Ward, Nina Simone, and Sidney Poitier, who starred as Walter Younger in both the play and film versions of A Raisin in the Sun.

Most importantly, though, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart addresses Hansberry’s secretive sexuality. Featuring interviews with her biographer, Imani Perry (2018), Hansberry’s handwritten diaries and personal photographs, and her pseudonymously published work for the San Francisco–based lesbian journal The Ladder, Strain paints a portrait of a woman closeted by the times into which she was born but whose “feeling heart” was her salvation.

The film includes delicious archival footage of Hansberry discussing the power of theater to confront social realities and from “The Nation Needs Your Gifts,” her 1964 statement to the Reader's Digest/United Negro College Fund creative writing contest winners, in which she famously said “Though it be a thrilling and marvelous thing to be merely young and gifted in such times, it is doubly so, doubly dynamic—to be young, gifted and black.” Taken from the world too soon by pancreatic cancer at age 34, Hansberry was memorialized by her close friend Nina Simone in her famous song “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black.”

Set in the context of violence against women across the globe, Sophia Kruz’s beautiful film explores a different facet of the relationship between art and politics. Little Stones follows four women: Panmela Castro, a Brazilian street artist and graffitist; Senegalese hip hop musician Fatou Diata, known as Sister Fa; Anna Taylor, founder of Judith & James, a fashion house in Nairobi, Kenya; and Sohini Chakraborty, a Kolkata-based dance movement therapist and activist. Paralleling the film’s content, director of cinematography Meena Singh’s artistry adds a painterly layer of creativity as she focuses her camera on the Singer sewing machines stitching boldly colored fabric, on the hands of girls dancing away their traumatic pasts, or on spray cans as they convert blank walls into works of art.

Early in the film, Sister Fa offers a sentiment that frames the boundary-pushing artists in this film: “I can use my voice for those who do not have the possibility to do so” (5:40). Breaking taboos as a woman in the male-dominated hip hop movement in Senegal, she self-produced her own CDs and became an international success by speaking truth to power.

For Panmela Castro, “tagging was a boy thing” (8:34), but she did not want to accept a subservient position as “the girlfriend of the boys” (9:03). So after her marriage became abusive, she found her voice in a spray can and graffiti art, what anthropologist James Scott calls the “weapons of the weak” (1985). She practices “democratic art” (9:29) that requires no formal training, expresses resistance, and is seen by the millions of residents of Rio de Janeiro. Her murals are soft and feminine in tone, but huge and expansive in size; through her paintings, women get to take up (a lot) of space rather than suffer in silence. 

Sohini Chakraborty was inspired by activism against trafficking violence to use dance as empowering therapy for bodies that had been taken and used against their wills. Working with girls rescued from brothels, she slowly builds trust and ensemble through movement work that becomes dance that becomes storytelling and ultimately healing.

Kruz deftly weaves these three stories together with a fourth, that of Anna Taylor’s Nairobi-based fashion house. Along with collaborator Judith Achiemg Dgaye, Taylor uses her “creativity to create change” (17:25). Raised by Christian missionaries from Arkansas, Taylor reflects on her own privilege as an American employer of local Kenyan women and on the cultural differences encountered in their collaborations.

Issues that these women activists address include female genital cutting in Senegal; sex trafficking in India; marital abuse and domestic violence in Rio de Janeiro; and political corruption in Kenya. From Muslim caliphs protesting and disrupting Sister Fa’s school visits to Castro’s engagement with the Biblical Eve in her graffiti art, Kruz maps the connection between women’s oppression and various religions. She also attends to the strategies the four women employ to stay hopeful in the face of inevitable adversity. “Struggle is part of the life” (80:23) asserts Sohini and, turning directly to the camera, she states “Women are creative. I say do it. Be bold” (84:48). The film thus shows viewers both the successes and the hurdles the activists face, making it a fruitful teaching tool to analyze the affordances of different activist strategies and assess the impact of efforts to make change by bridging cultural and political spheres.

Works Cited

Perry, Imani. 2018. Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry. Boston: Beacon.

Scott, James C. 1985. Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Theatre historian and performance studies scholar Dr. Megan Lewis is a multidisciplinary educator committed to advocating for the performing arts as a powerful force for social activation and change. She is the author of Performing Whitely in the Postcolony (2016) and Magnet Theatre: Three Decades of Making Space (2016), which won the Hiddingh-Currie National Book Award in 2018. She is also the director of a documentary film called Devising Gilgamesh: Collage Theatre-Making with Theatre Novi Most (Virgo Visions, 2014). Lewis is the Director of Theatre at Colorado State University.