Monday, March 19, 2018

New documentaries connect with Raisin and Mockingbird (Part 1)

Finding engaging multimedia to hook students’ interest is often our favorite part of working with informational texts. And we’re always excited to find a new audio and/or visual clip that offers our students a new way into the informational (and literary) texts we love to teach. So we were very pleased to discover two recent documentary efforts that connect wonderfully with A Raisin in the Sun and To Kill a Mockingbird: a biographical piece on Lorraine Hansberry and a series on The Loving Generation.

Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” is a beautiful tribute to the life, work, and activism of Lorraine Hansberry. The two-hour documentary features an impressive range of evocative still images and film footage of life on the southside of Chicago and in Harlem during the 1930s and 1940s, any part of which could be used to help students contextualize the challenges the Younger family faces in A Raisin in the Sun.

The first part of the film focuses on Hansberry’s father, his rise as a real estate owner on the southside of Chicago, and his attempt to move his family to a white neighborhood, a deliberate challenge to the restrictive covenants that barred African-Americans from purchasing property there. This ultimately thwarted attempt at desegregation and how this defeat affected her father served as the inspiration for Hansberry’s landmark play.

Hansberry’s sister movingly describes the violent intimidation her family faced after moving into the previously all-white neighborhood. Her recollections, accompanied by photographs of the protests outside of and attacks on their home, and voiceover narration from excerpts of Hansberry’s diaries, create a deeply moving depiction of these events. Hansberry’s recollections illustrate the significance, not only for the Hansberry family, of the legally enforced restrictions that circumscribed the socioeconomic opportunities of African-Americans.

This section of the film would serve as a dramatic introduction to a discussion of the violence often associated with housing desegregation. The film clip would dovetail wonderfully with the excerpt of a report by the city of Chicago on the violence that followed the desegregation of a housing development on the far south side in the 1950s, which we feature in our volume Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun. Both underscore the historical context for the housing discrimination that persists today and that make Raisin a continuingly relevant play for our students. (Our volume on Raisin features units on housing discrimination both past and present.)

Also of interest to teachers of Raisin is the documentary’s focus on the difficulties Hansberry and her producers faced in getting A Raisin in the Sun to Broadway and on the impact of its enormous success on African Americans who finally saw their daily lives depicted on stage. The latter is particularly interesting in the context of the present-day, record-breaking box office success of Black Panther and discussions of how long it has taken and how meaningful it is for an African-American superhero to make it to the big screen.

However, while the success of A Raisin in the Sun on stage brought Hansberry a great deal of acclaim, it did not mean the end of her struggles to protect her work. While Hansberry won the battle to write the screenplay for the film version of Raisin, she had to fight continuously against studio efforts to “water down the race material,” and was only moderately pleased with the final result. (See our volume on Raisin for further discussion of Hansberry’s struggles on this front.)

The end of “Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” focuses on Hansberry’s life after Raisin, particularly her activism within the Civil Rights movement, which was curtailed, like her creative work, by the extended period of illness preceding her death from pancreatic cancer at the age of 34. It also sensitively addresses the contradiction between Hansberry’s outspoken public presence as an artist and activist and her private life as a closeted lesbian married to a white man who helped maintain her secrecy. While not directly relevant to the teaching of Raisin, the conclusion of the film provides the opportunity for rewarding discussion of the contradictions and conflicts people encounter in their lives and how they choose to face them.

Note: the full-length “Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart” documentary is available to PBS/Thirteen members for streaming via the American Masters website, but educators can access shorter clips for free via the PBSLearningMedia website.

Check back soon for Part 2 on The Loving Generation ...

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