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Professor Strain on inspiration, filmmaking, and Lorraine Hansberry

Tracy Heather Strain joined the CAMD community in fall 2013 as a Professor of the Practice in Media and Screen Studies. An award-winning filmmaker, Tracy and her team won a $500,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to complete a documentary about Lorraine Hansberry, a playwright and activist best known for writing A Raisin in the Sun. We asked Tracy to tell us more about the project and how Lorraine Hansberry’s story has informed her career.

How did you become interested in Lorraine Hansberry?

I’ve been interested in Lorraine Hansberry since I was 17 years old, when my grandmother took me and my sister to see To Be Young, Gifted and Black at the Harrisburg Community Theatre. Hearing Lorraine Hansberry’s words in that play resonated with me as she described and analyzed issues and events related to race, class, gender, fears, and success.

lorraine

My grandmother lived in the city on a block that had transitioned during my childhood from being a primarily white neighborhood into an all-black neighborhood. My sister and I lived with our parents, and grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in a suburb that was statistically diverse but not in residential patterns, which made a difference in your educational opportunities. We had a very happy upbringing, but faced confusing and painful periodic bouts of racial segregation and discrimination during the mid-1960s through late 1970s. For example, as children we couldn’t swim in most pools in the city and surrounding suburbs. Even though we played every day with our neighbors, for many years, we were not allowed to swim in their swimming pools.

How did Lorraine Hansberry influence you as a filmmaker and a teacher?

I would say that she influenced my career, rather than directly influencing my work. I wasn’t originally interested in making documentaries. I left the world of advertising and direct marketing hoping, in part, to work on a dramatic film about Lorraine Hansberry. About ten years later I had an opportunity to direct a segment about Lorraine Hansberry in I’ll Make Me a World: A Century of African-American Art, a series produced by Blackside, the company best-known for Eyes on the Prize. Because I learned so much more information about Hansberry that didn’t fit into the series, I decided to continue with the plan to make a feature-length film about her. Fortunately, I joined forces with producer Chiz Schultz, who was working toward the same thing.

Hansberry’s interests were wide and deep, and she was interested in all people. Yes, she fought for African-American civil rights most of her life, but she also was committed to fostering a fair and just global society. As a teacher, I take inspiration from her and work to introduce my students to a broad array of work made by a diverse set of filmmakers focused on all sorts of content. There is never enough time to show everything I’d like, especially since each year brings many, many more fascinating documentary shorts and features.

What are your next steps?

More fundraising, including finishing a Kickstarter campaign which we launched in May. We need to raise $100,000 by June 20, 2014. In addition, we will continue to apply for grants for the documentary and seek potential underwriters as well as further develop and fundraise for the other aspects of the project including a project portal, interactive website around housing issues, radio series, traveling exhibit, and formal and informal education initiatives for students and educators.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Historical documentaries are expensive to produce but very rewarding because of the interdisciplinary detective-like nature of the research and filmmaking that has allowed me to meet a lot of wonderful people. More importantly, I feel that understanding the past is key to solving issues that face us today. In this media-rich environment, we must continue to make films that examine the past, no matter if the path to do so is challenging.

Students interested in taking a class with Tracy can enroll in Topics in Documentary Production in Fall 2014 or Spring 2015.