This week, in conjunction with our Writing New York course, we are showing the 1989 “documentary” Looking for Langston, by the black British filmmaker Isaac Julien. A sensual and hypnotic meditation on both the Harlem Renaissance and the AIDS crisis, Looking for Langston is informed by the critic Eve Sedgwick’s theorization of the experience of being a closeted homosexual.
Julien’s black-and-white film queers both the Harlem Renaissance and the documentary form, mixing documentary footage of Langston Hughes and other Harlem Renaissance figures with dream-like sequences set in nightclubs and bedrooms. The soundtrack features poems by Hughes, Bruce Nugent (1906-870, and Essex Hemphill (1957-95), as well as Toni Morrison’s moving elegy for James Baldwin (read at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York in 1987).
A shot early in the film recalls James Van Der Zee’s The Harlem Book of the Dead and shows Julien himself in a coffin. Dedicated to James Baldwin, the film meditates on the lives and deaths of Hughes and Baldwin and what it means to be forced to live a double life.
The film was finally released in the U.S. last summer on DVD. Extras include a commentary track with Julien and Director of Photography Nina Kellgren, a photo gallery, and the short film The Attendant (1993), which also explores the experience of living a double life.
Those of you who can play Region 2 discs might be interested in the UK DVD, which is available from amazon.co.uk. This deluxe edition, produced by the British Film Institute, includes a 46-package booklet of essays by bell hooks, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and others; an interview with Julien; biographies of Harlem Renaissance figures and others who are important to the film; and the Julien’s short film Portrait in Blue: Essex Hemphill (2005), and an audio recording of the 1990 radio show “First and Last Words: Essex Hemphill and Larry Duckette in Converation.” Like the U.S. DVD, it also includes a commentary track and photo gallery, but omits The Attendant.
Looking for Langston has a run-time of 45 minutes.