A film doesn’t need to be three hours long in order to be poignant—British filmmaker Isaac Julien shows that it can be done in just 40 minutes.
On March 23, Julien joined a panel of film scholars at Columbia’s Faculty House for a seminar titled, “Looking Back at Looking for Langston.” Put on by Columbia School of the Arts and Seminar Sites of Cinema, the discussion reflected upon Julien’s critically acclaimed 1989 film on race and gender identity during the Harlem Renaissance.
“Looking for Langston” is, as it states in its opening credits, “a meditation on Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance.” Archival footage and photographs taken by Robert Mapplethorpe are interwoven with Julien’s own scenes, shot in black and white, in a 1920s gay speakeasy. Recitations of poems by Essex Hemphill and Bruce Nugent frame the storyline.
Julien began by explaining why he chose the Harlem Renaissance as his subject. “I felt that I could say something about the period that had not been properly stated before,” he said. “What I wanted to say still has not been properly stated today, as the Hughes estate refuses to relax its position on censoring all academic inquiry into Hughes’ sexual identity.”
Julien’s efforts were met with resistance from the Hughes estate.
“They wanted every visual and textual reference to Hughes to be taken out and, of course, I objected to that and I did not change the title,” Julien said.
This refusal to acknowledge Hughes’ sexual identity is indicative of an oppressive attitude often aimed at members of gay black community, Julien said. The film shows how homosexuality has been considered a sin against the race within the black community, and worse, how racism was once prevalent within the gay community as a whole.
Because of this racism and homophobia, silencing one’s homosexuality has been a common practice among gay black men. As panelist Kobena Mercer of Yale University said, “The closet is one of the most crowded rooms in the house of black culture.”
The film hopes to give a voice to this oppressed minority. “‘Looking for Langston’ was about creating reference points and a narrative for black queer identities in the late 80s,” mediator Mark Nash, a professor at the Royal College of Art, said. Still, the film has relevance almost 25 years after its release: Proposition 8 in California and the Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida are evidence of the issue’s relevance.
“I teach it every year, which means I’ve seen it way more than 20 times, and it’s always revelatory,” said panelist Ruby B. Rich of the University of California, Santa Cruz. “It’s always necessary and as our eras change somehow the need for this film does not diminish.”