Looking for Langston [Review]

Rufus de Rham —  June 8, 2011 — 1 Comment

Looking for Langston is Isaac Julien’s 1989 short film which combines archival footage of the Harlem Renessanice with scripted fictional scenes. It celebrates freedom of black gay culture during the 1920s in Harlem. I first came upon this film during my research into the black British film collectives that sprang up in Britain in the 1980s. The film collectives were born during a time of unrest in Britain. The rise of neo-fascism in the last years of the Labor government before Margaret Thatcher saw racially motivated attacks increase against both Afro-Caribbean and Asian people. Large gatherings of people of color were being portrayed in the press as threatening, turning Carnival into something that should be policed and feared. The Brixton riots of 1981, while not the first burst of violence against oppression in the country, lead to a string of disturbances that were co-opted by the media apparatus as part of this new narrative of Black Threat. In response to these incidents the Ethnic Minorities Committee was created in 1981, which housed within it the Black Arts Division created for the purposes of funding black cultural productions. The Association of Cinematograph Television & Allied Technicians, Britain’s film production union, at the same time instituted the Grant-Aided Workshop Production Declaration in 1981. They also had directed efforts into establishing Channel 4 to act as both a commissioner and outlet for British films. Channel 4 started broadcasting in 1982 and was government subsidized but funded from outside sources (including advertising and subscriptions) as well. These institutions were incredibly important in allowing the workshops to become franchised in the early 1980s and provided a platform for their voice. In 1986, Black Audio Film Collective’s Handsworth Songs and Sankofa Film/Video Collective’s The Passion of Remembrance both opened in London’s Metro Cinema. They were the first theatrical screenings for black film collectives, and served as a warning shot across the British independent landscape that things were about to change.

Isaac Julien, along with Martina Attille, Maureen Blackwood, and Nadine Marsh-Edwards were the founding members the of Sankofa Film and Video Collective. Their first film was Who Killed Colin Roach? (Julien, 1983) a film documenting the death of Colin Roach near a police station, which was officially dismissed as a suicide. The group was largely concerned with sexual and gender politics. This can be seen in Looking for Langston which was made after the groups The Passion of Remembrance (perhaps their best known work). The Passion of Remembrance attacked identity politics head on and explored all aspects of black life in Britain. While the film now seems too firmly rooted in -isms (racism, feminism, etc) its strongest argument was that the political movements of the time were being co-opted by black heterosexual masculinity at the expense of homosexual interests and women.

Looking for Langston on the other hand represents not only a celebration of black gay culture, but also seemingly captures the complex dynamic between black British and black Americans. A British film, by a British director, but it celebrates American black culture. It is a film lensed by Nina Kellgren with sensuality not only for the beautiful bodies and compositions on display, but also for the freedom that they represent. The film starts with a funeral, ostensibly Langston Hughes but really Isaac Julien himself, and ends with a disco interrupted by white police. What is in between is beautiful. The film is highly experimental but the basic plot is Alex (played by Ben Ellison) lusts after Beauty (Matthew Baidoo), who he had seen in a club. The film is dream like in structure and style, from the ephemeral Cotton Club stand in where men dance openly with each other to the scene in which Beauty walks through sheets with Robert Maplethorpe images projected onto them.

The archival footage (including footage from Oscar Micheaux films) melds into this constructed reality while voices read the poems of Hughes, Essex Hemphill, Bruce Nugent, Hilton Als, and James Baldwin. The Baldwin poem is even read by Toni Morrison.

In the dark we don’t have to say “I love you”
The dark swallows it,
And sighs like we sigh
when we rise from our knees.
I am lonely for past kisses
wild lips certain streets breed for pleasure…

Reads a voice from Hemphill as Alex and Beauty circle and meet and circle again. Here we see the ambiguity of sexuality among the artistic elites at the time. It was a freedom that was intertwined with cultural power, which is, perhaps in itself, just another prison. More of a visual poem than a strict narrative, this film posits that sex is a necessary component to art and in a way revolution. This is a complex film that unfolds itself with each subsequent viewing. I cannot recommend it enough, even if you watch it once for the luscious cinematography on display.

Rufus de Rham

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A film archivist who writes about Korean film, Rufus is also a programmer, Operations Manager, and head of the Asian Film Preservation Fund for Subway Cinema.