looking_for_langston_1.jpgThis 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).

langston2.jpgA 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.