PRINT December 1989


Looking for Langston

FOR MONTHS BEFORE ITS OCTOBER screening at the New York Film Festival, the word going around about Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston was that it was a hotbed of black homoerotica, the cinematic equivalent of a meat market well-hung with live and flopping dick, an Afrocentric phallus show set to outgawk-and-grope Robert Mapplethorpe. Never depend on scandalmongers when it comes to the naked truth. The film’s only frontal nudity is found in a silk-curtained gallery row of Mapplethorpe photographs, and no one except for those either easily titillated or turned off by the sight of two men kissing is going to get juiced by the footage here. What Julien has called a film meditation on the poet and writer Langston Hughes is really more a collage about the historical condition of being black, gay, silenced, and incomprehensible—both during the Harlem Renaissance of the ’20s and in the neojackbooted now.

And like all the work produced by the Sankofa Collective, of which Isaac Julien is a founding member, Looking for Langston sets out to fulfill several agendas related to the project of a black independent cinema. Not least of these being to cast never-before-seen black images, characters, and settings on the big screen. As far as I know, this is the only art film ever made about the historical condition of being black and gay, but transgressive subject matter isn’t its only fresh component. The visual style of the film, heavily indebted to the photography of famed Harlem portraitist James Van Der Zee, and the ’20s neoprimitivist black painter Aaron Douglas (with traces, in certain desolate exterior night shots, of the wartime work of Bill Brandt), reads as a kind of Africanized Art Deco, florid, fantastic, static, and studied.

A mixed-genre movie made up of fictional narrative sequences, documentary footage, still life scenes, and music montages, the film alternates between revelry in the cloak-and-dagger subculture of gay nightlife and a brooding over the class exploitation and ethnic ennui to be found in that world as well. As if to say that to be black and gay is to exist in a double-bind state of disempowerment, objectification, and economic disenfranchisement. As if to say that to be black and gay is also to have access to the lusty embrace of the life-force that serves as safety valve for the dark and underdecolonized.

Besides being a meditation on dead and black gay icons, the film is inevitably a meditation on death and its intimate proximity with gay desire. The film opens with a wake, a funereal scene that finds director Julien propped up in a casket in a room that appears wholly borrowed from Van Der Zee’s Harlem Book of the Dead, 1978. Considering that screenings of several of Julien’s previous films have brought threats of an ass-whipping down on the filmmaker, this inside joke could be read as a coy premonition on Julien’s part that they’re really going to get him for this one.

Associating Langston Hughes with homosexuality is not an act guaranteed to win anyone brownie points, particularly among cultural nationalists for whom Hughes is a canonized father of black literature. Apart from the specific question of Hughesr sexual preference (elided by Hughesr biographer, Arnold Rampersad, who opted for “asexual” on the basis of lack of hard evidence) and the controversy surrounding any discussion of it, the more general problem here is in the circumscription of what the black male cultural figure can be: certainly not gay.

What is undeniable, and what Julien relies upon as “evidence,” is Hughesr close friendships with openly gay figures of the period, like writer, playboy, and bon vivant Bruce Nugent, and while the filmmaker could be said to appropriate Hughes as a black gay icon on the basis of association and a certain fancifulness, he doesn’t provide any more “proof” than a line from an Owen Dodson statement where that underrecognized black gay writer swoons over the memory of having once kissed Hughes.

The upshot of all this gay-by-association business, however, has been to bring down on the film the wrath of the Hughes estate and its executor, George Bass, Hughes’ former secretary. By claiming copyright infringement, the estate was able to have the readings of Hughes’ work removed from the festival screening of the film. At one point the word was that they were trying to intimidate Julien into removing the writer’s name from the title. Though that heavy-handed maneuver proved unsuccessful, the censoring of the two scenes featuring Hughes reading his work in front of a jazz band for a ’50s TV show actually reinforces the point of how much silence and repression exists around the gay presence in the black community. At the festival screening, these scenes were rendered absurdly funny by the fact that Hughes’ image remained on the screen while the sound was turned down on his voice. In the roaring silence that ensued, the audience was made keenly aware of the fact that the poet’s lips were moving but his voice had been literally snatched out of his mouth.

The displacement of Hughes’ poetry had one plus, however, in allowing Julien to give more room to the work of the young African-American gay writer Essex Hemphill (mistakenly characterized by Caryn James in the New York Times as an obscure and inspired English poet, but in actual fact a native of Chocolate City, i.e., Washington, D.C.), who is possibly the most accomplished and sexually frank black gay poet in the country. If Julien’s film strikes a mood of mourning around death and desire in the black gay community, Hemphill’s lines detail and anecdotalize it, rendering the diachronic and distanced into the immediate and painful, exposing a profundity of wounds to an uninformed, disinterested, and disaffected world. Hemphillrs and Julien’s visions converse most eloquently in a sequence wherein a wealthy white sybarite goes shopping among a laced strip of full-size Mapplethorpe photos for the neoprimitive fetish best suited to his white supremacist power-tripping.

The film’s last fictional sequence is its most cinematic in the classical sense of the term: full action, danger, and melodrama, tracking the invasion of the gay pleasure palace that has served as the film’s main interior by a dragoon of club-wielding, straight authorities hell-bent on a homophobic mission of destruction. (Note that this scene is done to the beat of Todd Terry’s “Can You Party?,” a current anthem of black gay life that appropriates several martial strategies from those self-admittedly homophobic shock troops of hip-hop, Public Enemy.) True to the subcultural phantasmagoria Julien has built up around the hidden world of gay desire, the sequence ends with the straights landing on the dance floor vacant of its intended targets, prancing fairies and fallen angels of the night apparently whisked off by an invisible Tinkerbell into a dreamtime of graveyard dust, glitter, smoke, and vapors.

Greg Tate is a staff writer at The Village Voice and an editor of B. Culture. He is a guitarist and composer for the Suns of Hoo Doo and a founding member of the Black Rock Coalition.