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Looking For Langston (1989)

Courtesy of Isaac Julien

Main image of Looking For Langston (1989)
16mm, black and white, 46 mins
Director/ScreenplayIsaac Julien
Production CompanySankofa Film and Video
ProducerNadine Marsh-Edwards
CinematographyNina Kellgren

Cast: Matthew Baidoo (Beauty); Akim Mogaji (James); John Wilson (Karl); Dencil Williams (Marcus); Guy Burgess (Dean); James Dublin (Carlos)

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A meditation on the life and work of gay black poet Langston Hughes.

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Writer-director Isaac Julien describes Looking for Langston as neither documentary nor narrative, but a meditation on the gay black American poet Langston Hughes and the repressed lives of similar artists, as lived beyond the public gaze.

The film's opening is strikingly bold, starting with the words from Hughes' memorial mass over an image of the dead artist in his coffin (played by Isaac Julien himself). This emphasises the personal nature of the film, establishing Julien as a gay black artist in his own right, echoing the words of his predecessor when he states, "We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain free within ourselves".

We then follow the camera into the underworld of all male, mainly black homosexual Harlem society from the 1920s to the 1950s and beyond.

From snippets of written and spoken texts such as "homosexuality was a sin against the race so it had to be kept secret even if it was a widely shared one," Julien marries images of documentary footage seamlessly with reconstructed party scenes, and fleshed-out interpretations of Hughes' and other writers' work, illuminating the large part played by the artists' sexuality, all presented in grainy black and white.

Colour is effectively provided by the individual voices - Bruce Nugent's justification of closeted lives, Essex Hemphill's uncompromisingly visceral poems, James Baldwin's lyrical sensitivity and Langston Hughes' song-like verse - with Julien's images providing a personal interpretation of each artist's voice.

Looking for Langston is a mood piece that gives a full flavour of what it is like to have lived a closeted and yet strangely public life as a black gay artist. It is a celebration of brave men, holding them up in an unapologetically heroic light.

Cyril Nri

*This film is available on BFI DVD.

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Julien, Isaac (1960-)
Black British Film