American playwright Lorraine Hansberry was born on May 19, 1930 in Chicago. After attending the University of Wisconsin for two years and then studying painting in Chicago and Mexico, Hansberry moved to New York in 1950. There she held a number of odd jobs to make ends meet while trying to establish her writing career. Hansberry wrote her first play A Raisin in the Sun in 1959. The first drama by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. A Raisin in the Sun tells the story of a working-class black family in Chicago. The production won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Award, and in 1961, the film version, starring Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee, received a special award at the Cannes Film Festival. Hansberry's next play, The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, a drama set in Greenwich Village, had a short run on Broadway in 1964. Hansberry's promising career was tragically cut short by her premature death on January 12, 1965. She was 34 years old. The plays To Be Young, Gifted and Black and Les Blancs were adapted from Hansberry's early writings by her ex-husband Robert Nemiroff. Both plays were produced off-Broadway, in 1969 and 1970 respectively.
Henry Louis Gates was born on September 16, 1950, in Keyser, West Virginia. A respected scholar in African American Studies, Gates graduated from Yale and Cambridge universities. A visit to Africa during the 1970s further developed his interest in African American literature and culture and helped him expand his theories. He is responsible for rediscovering and reviving many writings by black authors, and his goal is to restore the role of black literature in its proper context. He has written numerous historical books including Colored People: A Memoir, A Chronology of African-American History, and The Future of the Race. Gates also has his critics; his appearance at the obscenity trial of the rap group 2 Live Crew was seen as flagrantly self-advancing, and he has been accused of being overly Afrocentric. Nevertheless, his reputation as a scholar is well-deserved. Not only has he taught at Harvard, Yale, Duke, and Cornell, but he has been awarded many honors, including the highly coveted MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."
Directing, writing, and starring in his own films, as did Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles before him, Lee has arguably had almost as profound an influence on American filmmaking as his predecessors, although in very different ways. In his own words, he is good at "marketing," and what he has marketed is a highly politicized African American cinema that is also commercially viable. Many critics credit Lee with paving the way for a new wave of mass-market yet socially conscious filmmakers, including John Singleton, Charles Lane, and Carl Franklin. The eldest of six children, Lee was educated first at Morehouse College and then at New York University's film school. His first feature release, She's Gotta Have It (1986), won the Prix de Jeunesse at Cannes and was both critically acclaimed and commercially successful in the United States. Lee went on to make School Daze (1988) and Do the Right Thing (1989), a technically sophisticated film that addressed racism in a complex and controversial fashion. The film constructs a narrative that leaves it to the viewer to decide whether its protagonist, Mookie, has done the right thing when he responds to the death of one of his friends at the hands of the police by throwing a trash can through the window of his employer, who had called the police in the first place. Because a riot ensues, many (white) critics argued that the film celebrated violence, and the press suggested that it would incite black spectators to riot (it did not). Other critics suggested that Mookie actually defuses a riot, by directing the community's anger toward property and away from the police. Two years later, Lee tackled the subject of interracial relationships in another hotly debated film, Jungle Fever (1991), which some saw as preachy and sexist and others praised as bold and complex. However, his most recent and ambitious film, Malcolm X (1992), has been almost universally acclaimed. Lee has published a companion text for each film that includes biographies of all of the principals, essays on such topics as guerilla filmmaking, production stills, details of salaries and finances, excerpts from his journal or production notes, and the script. These materials demystify production, advertise the talents of the people who work for him, and promote his political positions, particularly his commitment to black entrepreneurship and cultural self-expression.