In mainstream gay cinema, the images of the black gay man is somewhat controversial and contrived. Often, he is portrayed as the overly effete stereotype. For the sake of the dollar and to appeal to cross-cultural fetishistic interest to reach a wider audience, he is often shown preferring and seeking out the attentions of white gay men. Writer-director Isaac Julien's LOOKING FOR LANGSTON represents a departure from the status quo of the image of black gay men while also attempting to reclaim the black gay identity and history that only now is beginning to be widely acknowledged by the general black community.
LOOKING FOR LANGSTON can best be describe as impressionistic film-making. The film does not really follow any type of linear storytelling that the average movie viewer will expect. But, far from being intimidating, the film is viewable and can be enjoyed beyond the prejudices of the art house crowd. More, it is touted as being a meditation on the African-American poet Langston Hughes who was understandably a closeted gay man
who preferred emotionally, intellectually, and other the company of other black men, especially those of a handsome and dark complexion, in his love life and work. And, Julien is perfectly aware of this as his research indicates as it has already been documented that Hughes found white men of little sexual interest in life and work. Hughes is also employed as a kind of metaphor in the film to demonstrate the fact that black gay men are able to express love and desire for one another. This challenges the more widespread and universally popular prejudices and stereotyped images already mentioned.
The film is presented in black and white. It opens with a funeral scene and a radio memorial broadcast that aired upon the news that Langston Hughes had died 1967. From here, it subways into a 1920's Harlem speakeasy where is found mostly black gay men of various hues and a very few white men. Interspersed and overvoicing much of the film, is old footage of Harlem of the 20's, a multilayered narrative with the poetry of Richard Bruce Nugent-- a contemporary of Hughes--, the poetry of Essex Hemphill, and images of Hughes reading his poetry during a television program. The film presents a few racialized and exploitative images of black men from the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe. These images are meant to show how black male sexuality has been largely represented by western culture in general, black men being reduced to their sexual appendages. These images are disagreeable but understandable when it is remembered that a number of whites, white gay men especially, who visited Harlem in the 20's did so out of a sense of exotic tourism, a sense that anything goes among the Harlemites. Hughes would rectify this misperception in the first of his two autobiographies, The Big Sea, by stating rather pointedly that these "tourist" were not as loved and welcomed by most Harlemites as they believed themselves to be. Rather, they were only tolerated out of no other choice. More, it must be remembered that black gay sexually was "sometimes" tolerated by the larger black community in Harlem up to a point.
There is a brief scene in the film showing a white man paying for the clandestine services of a black man. The image represents the exploitation that took place. Presented also are modern day 1980's images to draw a parallel between 20's Harlem and present day. Interestingly enough, Julien chooses to show the brief image of a black and white man kissing in modern day accompanied by an Essex Hemphill overvoice wanting "the choice" to love a partner of a different race (i.e. white) as opposed to, I assume, the blanket stereotyped images always being presented where a black man never desires another black man.
The consistent and primary focus of the film is the relationship between its two black male leads, Ben Ellison (as Langston Hughes) and Mathew Baidoo (as Beauty). With the exception of one brief moment, no dialogue is ever spoken between the two. What is presented are dream sequences and a lot of furtive glances between the two. Beauty (Mathew Baidoo) is desired by a man who bears a healthy resemblance to a young Langston Hughes, Ben Ellison, amongst the patrons of a Harlem speakeasy. Beauty notices the attention he is getting from this Hughes and returns a sign of his own interest by way of a welcoming glance. Unfortunately, Beauty is seated with a jealous white slummer for the evening who has apparently bought his services. What is interesting about the slummer from downtown is that Julien turns the tables by making the white man a nelly stereotype, an image usually given to the black gay man in a film. Hughes is forced to only have possession of Beauty in his dreams. There the viewer sees images of the two black males lovingly entwined with one another on a bed. Also, in another dream sequence, Hughes approaches Beauty in a field but is rejected by him, a metaphor for his current situation in the speakeasy. In the end, the look-a-like accepts that he will not have Beauty at that moment, encounters another black man and leaves the speakeasy with him.
LOOKING FOR LANGSTON is a visual feast for the eyes. But its primary claim to fame will be the tresties it offers on black gay male desire. Isaac Julien, along with Essex Hemphill in TONGUES UNTIED, was one of the first to challenge the misperception that black gay men cannot desire and love one another. Today, in his footsteps, other black gay men in film are taking control of their own image and identity through writing and directing.
If one is able to purchase this dvd, I would also recommend the purchase of the Rodney Evans film/dvd BROTHER TO BROTHER about Hughes comptemporary Richard Bruce Nugent. BROTHER TO BROTHER is a great companion piece to LOOKING FOR LANGSTON. The two films offer well defined and different perspectives on black gay desire, but, both celebrate black gay identity and the men who contributed to the Harlem Renaissance.
A minor note. This is a Strand Releasing dvd which is not of the same integrity and quality as its U.K. counterpart whose entire packaging keeps with the theme of "black on black" gay love along side a host wonderful extras. Those able to do so should purchase the British version from U.K. Amazon. More, the Strand Releasing dvd includes the short Isaac Julien film call The Attendant. The film is completely out of place on this dvd. Because of The Attendant's subject matter, a better place for it would have been the dvd Young Soul Rebels. Strand Releasing obviously put the short film on the Looking for Langston dvd for pruient interest. As it stands, The Attendant is an insult to the prevailing theme of Looking for Langston.