Review: Isaac Julien // Looking for Langston

We begin at the end: a funeral. Well-dressed men and women sob, tears running down their cheeks. The camera pans across an open coffin, over the face of a young man. The large church is claustrophobic with pale blooms.

The camera travels down, and we shift underground to a 1920s speakeasy, populated with beautiful, well-dressed young people. The music is loud and jazzy, and the air is hazy with smoke. Private dramas play out as patrons eye one another across champagne coupes. There is no dialogue, just intense, extended gazes. Sometimes they land right on you, direct to camera, and the cool, darkened gallery feels suddenly warm.

We move from the bar to other dream-like, grainy scenes: a man stumbles across an open plain; he is chasing a lover. White flags are fluttering in the wind. Cut to a scene in bed. Two bodies approach another, longing, aching. There are furtive trysts in dark alleys, boots crunching on asphalt as two lovers approach the meeting place. Poetry is recited in deep, honey-toned voices (“We lurk in the shadows”) over these erotic vignettes.

The aesthetic of Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989/2016) is decidedly Hollywood. It is F. Scott Fitzgerald, Greta Garbo and the Jazz Age. It is excess, youthful love affairs and unbridled angst. But it’s also different to these clichés. Julien’s protagonists are all men, and most of them are black.

Neither black stories nor homosexual stories are the stuff of vintage Hollywood, let alone black and homosexual. It becomes clear through the voice overs in Looking for Langston, drawn from texts by writers such as James Baldwin and Bruce Nugent as well as Langston Hughes, that not only were these stories absent from mainstream representation, they were also suppressed within black communities: “Homosexuality was a sin against the race, so it had to be kept a secret, even when it was a widely shared one.” These men were rendered invisible twice over.

This shared experience of black queerness would explain why Julien, who is black, queer and British, identifies so strongly with the American story he tells in Looking for Langston. The titular subject, Langston Hughes (1902-1967), was an American poet and social activist. Considered a leader in the 1920s rebirth of African-American arts known as the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes wrote about his experiences of racism as a black man in a segregated world.

Hughes was not openly gay during his life, and there are conflicting opinions in posthumous literary and queer readings regarding his sexual orientation.  The title of Julien’s film suggests that he was seeking to tell an untold story, to find something hidden beneath the surface, to seek out the real Langston Hughes. The film includes archival images and footage, suggesting a biopic quality.

As the film reaches its climax, jazz music at the bar is replaced with 80s house music, and the dapper men – still in tailcoats – shift from couples dancing to nightclub partying, complete with open, ecstatic faces. So, Looking for Langston moves in and out of the specificity of Hughes, and he becomes symbolic of black queer experience over time.

In the gallery, a selection of suave, sensual and intimate photographic stills is showing alongside the film. Enormous, glossy mural prints reflect the excess of all-night partying, while in a selection of smaller, framed images these stories are made personal and close. Together the images and film are a poignant and poetic reflection on black queer experience, and in the nearly thirty years since the film’s initial release, it has become practically canonical in its historical importance.

Published on Art Guide Australia, 30 January 2018