Sighted Eyes, Feeling Heart, the debut documentary from director Tracy Heather Strain, is making the rounds at festivals such as the Chicago International Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival this year. It explores the dynamic and unconventional life of young playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry who came of age in the Civil Rights era, but died at only 34. The film is an emotionally charged excavation of what it meant to be Young, Gifted, and Black, the title of Hansberry’s unfinished autobiography, which is one of the many pieces of her work on display in the film. Her play, A Raisin in the Sun, changed the conversation on segregated housing and propelled her to fame, and it was the first play written by an African-American to play on Broadway. The play featured an almost exclusively black cast, which at the time was unheard of. The play which was later adapted into a movie which is also featured heavily in the documentary.
The film, which is almost entirely archival, save the interviews and a few reenactment scenes, uses Hansberry’s own writing, short news clips of Hansberry, and a plethora of civil rights photography to tell its story. Black and white photos are the emotional and structural backbone of the film, giving it a concrete sense of place, despite its jumpy, often disconnected thoughts.
Although emotionally stirring and visually striking, the debut film from Strain is a bit messy. The film is too long, to windy, and uses too many elements to feel focused. Made over the last 25 years, it feels at times as if the personal project turned feature length documentary has gotten away from its director. The film is fragmented, intentionally, to cover different aspects of Hansberry’s life, from her civil rights work to her lesbianism, but these segments often end abruptly and fade to black leaving the viewer with several seconds of dead time to feel unsatisfied by the questions still left hanging. Lorraine Hansberry died before she could make sense of most of her life, and the film feels that absence.
Still, the film’s flaws are easily outweighed by its emotional impact and cultural relevancy. Hansberrry was, during her life, a funny, engaging and compassionate person, and the film showcases each of those aspects of her personality. Despite relying on only one family member for interviews and a large number of academics, Hansberry’s personality is distinct and enjoyable throughout the whole film. Though at times the film fixates of parts of history and veers into the area of “issue documentary,” Hansberry’s quick wit and prose are enough to carry the audience through a brick wall of information and back to the larger ideas.
Context is ultimately what ties this entire film together. Context makes the black and white photos of the civil rights movement fit next to reenactments of a young Lorraine Hansberry stargazing, and fit next to interviews of lesbian scholars. Despite her short life, Loraine Hansberry lived a deep life, and the true depth of it is explored and celebrated in this documentary.