Looking for Langston (1989): Isaac Julien’s Poetic Evocation of Langston Hughes

Isaac Julien directed Looking for Langston, a poetic British short, produced by Sankofa Film & Video Productions.

Looking for Langston

UK theatrical release poster

The short, which has a running time of 42 minutes, 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 cultural period of the Harlem Renaissance in New York.

A voice-over of the radio broadcast, made in tribute to Langston Hughes upon his death in 1967, opens the film, as the scene of his funeral is recreated and reinterpreted.

The images draw on shifting time periods that flow from past to present, black men dancing together within a revisionist version of the Cotton Club, or a speakeasy, and dream sequences.

Gay Directors, Gay Films? By Emanuel Levy (Columbia University Press, August 2015).

There are brief narrative extracts from Hughes’ poetic works alongside those of Richard Bruce Nugent, James Baldwin, and Essex Hemphill.

The controversial images of black men by the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe are also shown.

Rather than aiming to be a conventional biopic, the film is a memoriam to Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, as reconstructed from a black gay perspective.

It aims to provide a meditation on the black gay experience within a historical context of homophobia, oppression and denial faced by men of African descent within black communities.

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.

The film contests the ways in which 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.

In the process, the identity of Hughes as a black gay man is reclaimed and no longer denied.

Looking for Langston has been one of very few films showing intra-racial affection between black gay men, which is revealed in the love story between the two lead black men, Ben Ellison as Langston Hughes and Matthew Baidoo as Beauty.

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.  During subsequent screenings of Looking for Langston, the sound was repeatedly turned down when the work of Hughes was read.

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)


Directed, written by Isaac Julien
Produced by Nadine March-Edwards
Music by Wayson Jones, Trevor Mathison, Peter Spencer
Cinematography Nina Kellgren

Production company: Sankofa Film & Video Productions

Distributed by British Film Institute

Release date: February 1989, Berlin Film Fest

Running time: 42 minutes