Looking for Langston

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Looking for Langston
UK theatrical release poster
Directed byIsaac Julien
Produced byNadine March-Edwards
Written byIsaac Julien (screenplay)
StarringBen Ellison
Matthew Baidoo
Akim Mogaji
John Wilson
Dencil Williams
Guy Burgess
James Dublin
Harry Donaldson
Jimmy Somerville
Langston Hughes as himself
Music byWayson Jones
Trevor Mathison
Peter Spencer
CinematographyNina Kellgren
Sankofa Film & Video Productions
Distributed byBritish Film Institute
Release date
  • February 1989 (1989-02)

(Berlin International Film Festival)
Running time
42 minutes

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 has a runtime of about 42 minutes.

Critical synopsis[edit]

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.[1] 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."[2]

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.[3]

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 Hughes today.[4][5] 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.[6][7]

Upon the first release of Looking for Langston in the United States in 1990, the estate of Langston Hughes initially attempted to have the film censored because of copyright violations: 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 until this day.[vague] Today it falls under the auspices of the British Film Institute as part of its national "Black World" initiative celebrating black creativity in film.


  • Ben Ellison as Alex
  • Matthew Baidoo as Beauty
  • Akim Mogaji as James
  • John Wilson as Gary
  • Dencil Williams as Marcus
  • Guy Burgess as Dean
  • James Dublin as Carlos
  • Harry Donaldson as Leatherboy
  • Jimmy Somerville as Angel
  • Stuart Hall as British voice (voice)
  • Langston Hughes as Himself (archive footage)


Teddy Award for Best Short Film at the 1989 Berlin International Film Festival. To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Teddy Awards, the film has been selected to be shown at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival in February 2016.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dolan Hubbard (2004), "Langston Hughes: A Bibliographic Essay", in S. Tracy (2004), A Historical Guild to Langston Hughes, pp. 216-217, Oxford University Press.
  2. ^ Russo, Vito (1990), "Who Owns the Past?", The Advocate magazine, p. 56.
  3. ^ Hubbard (2004), pp. 216-217.
  4. ^ "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.
  5. ^ 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.
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ Julien, Isaac, and Colin MacCabe (1991). Diary of a Young Soul Rebel, pp. 128-129. British Film Institute.
  8. ^ "Berlinale 2016: Panorama Celebrates Teddy Award's 30th Anniversary and Announces First Titles in Programme". Berlinale. Retrieved 20 December 2015.


Further reading[edit]

  • 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.

External links[edit]