Looking for Langston
|Looking for Langston|
UK theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Isaac Julien|
|Produced by||Nadine March-Edwards|
|Written by||Isaac Julien (screenplay)|
Langston Hughes as himself
|Music by||Wayson Jones
|Sankofa Film & Video Productions|
|Distributed by||British Film Institute|
|Release date(s)||February 1989
(Berlin International Film Festival)
|Running time||42 min.|
Looking for Langston is a 1989 British black-and-white film, directed by Isaac Julien and produced by Sankofa Film & Video Productions. It combines authentic archival newsreel footage of Harlem in the 1920s with scripted scenes to produce a non-linear impressionistic storyline celebrating black gay identity and desire during the artistic and cultural period known as the Harlem Renaissance in New York. The film is a short, running at about 42 minutes.
Opening the film is a voice-over of the original radio broadcast made in tribute to Langston Hughes upon his death in 1967 as the scene of his funeral is recreated and reinterpreted. Interspersed among such images as shifting time periods that seamlessly flow from past to present, black men dancing together within a revisionist version of the Cotton Club, or a speakeasy, and dream sequences, are brief narrative extracts from the poetic works of Hughes alongside those of Richard Bruce Nugent, James Baldwin, and Essex Hemphill. Also shown are the controversial images of black men by the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
The film is not a biography of Langston Hughes. It is a memoriam to Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance as reconstructed from a black gay perspective. Moreover, it purports to be a meditation on the black gay experience within a historical context built around the homophobia, oppression and denial faced by men of African descent within black communities alongside “allusions and political commentary on white racism.”
Hughes is presented as an icon and cultural metaphor for black gay men who were confronted with being ostracized if they did not conform to black bourgeoisie standards whose overriding goal concerned fuller social integration. Contested are the ways the black male and his sexuality have been represented in the modern Western world and how existing notions of race and gender figure within American and African American culture.
Throughout this process, the identity of Hughes as a black gay man is reclaimed and no longer denied, a process paralleled in the ever growing academic studies of Langston Hughes today. Moreover, adding to the historic and cinematic importance of the film in gay cinema, Looking for Langston was and continues to be one of very few films showing intra-racial affection between black gay men as revealed in the love story between the two leading black protagonists, Ben Ellison as Langston Hughes and Matthew Baidoo as Beauty.
Upon the initial first release of Looking for Langston in the United States in 1990, the estate of Langston Hughes attempted to have the film censored because of copyright violations. That is, permission allegedly had not been obtained by the filmmakers permitting them to use the poetry of Hughes in the film. During subsequent screenings of Looking for Langston, the sound was repeatedly turned down when the work of Hughes was read.
Despite allegations of censorship from critics at the time of the U.S. premier of the film, the estate had allowed many of Hughes’ poems to appear in gay anthologies in the print media and continues to do so till this day. Today it falls under the auspices of the British Film Institute as part of its national "Black World" initiative celebrating black creativity in film.
- Dolan Hubbard (2004) "Langston Hughes: A Bibliographic Essay", in S. Tracy (2004), A Historical Guild to Langston Hughes, pp. 216-217, Oxford University Press.
- Russo, Vito (1990), "Who Owns the Past?", The Advocate magazine, p. 56.
- Hubbard, (2004) pp. 216-217.
- "Referring to men of African descent, biographer Arnold Rampersad writes: "...Hughes found some young men, especially dark-skinned men, appealing and sexually fascinating. (Both in his various artistic representations, in fiction especially, and in his life, he appears to have found young white men of little sexual appeal.) Virile young men of very dark complexion fascinated him. Rampersad, vol. 2, 1988, p. 336.
- Sandra West explicitly states Hughes' "apparent love for black men as evidenced through a series of unpublished poems he wrote to a black male lover named 'Beauty'." West, 2003, p. 162.
- In one key scene, there is "an exchange of looks between 'Langston' and his mythic object of desire, a black man named 'Beauty'..." Mercer, Kobena (1994), Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies.
- Julien, Isaac, and Colin MacCabe (1991). Diary of a Young Soul Rebel, pp. 128-129. British Film Institute.
- Appiah, Kwame Anthony; Henry Louis Gates (2003). Africana: The Concise Desk Reference. Philadelphia: Running Press Book Publishers. ISBN 0-7624-1642-4
- Blount, Marcellis; George P. Cunningham (1996). Representing Black Men. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-90759-4
- Mercer, Kobena (1994). Welcome to the Jungle: New Positions in Black Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-90635-0
- Munoz, Jose Esteban (1999). Disidentifications: Queer of Color and the Performance of Politics (Cultural Studies of America, V.2). University of Minnesota Press. ISBN 0-8166-3015-1
- Rampersad, Arnold (1988). The Life of Langston Hughes Volume 2: I Dream A World. "Ask Your Mama!", p. 336. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-514643-3
- Smith, Valerie (ed.), (2003). Representing Blackness: Issues in Film and Video. New Jersey: Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0-8135-2314-1
- West, Sandra L. (2003), "Langston Hughes". In Aberjhani & Sandra West (eds), Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, p. 162. Checkmark Press. ISBN 0-8160-4540-2
- Padva, Gilad (2014). "Black Nostalgia: Poetry, Ethnicity, and Homoeroticism in Looking for Langston and Brother to Brother". In Queer Nostalgia in Cinema and Pop Culture, pp. 199-226. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. ISBN 978-1-137-26633-0.