How to describe, let alone classify, Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989)? As a film that refuses, finally, to be placed, it is queer in its very uncategorizability. Forty minutes long, shot in soft, dreamy monochrome, it mixes archival footage of Langston Hughes (seen above) with impressionistic shots of black (and white) men’s bodies in various states of erotic languor—in bed, in a field, on a dance floor somewhere out of time—while lines of poetry by Hughes and others (Essex Hemphill, Bruce Nugent) are heard in voice-over on the soundtrack. It exists somewhere between documentary, narrative, and experimental film; while, on one level, it does the work of historically recovering the homoerotic power of Hughes’ writing and the queer energy of the Harlem Renaissance more generally, it’s not a film invested in boiling its subject down to facts, or even a clear political agenda. Its aim seems rather to bring together a number of historical and theoretical subjects—blackness, queerness, poetry, sex, music, death—and to meditate on them poetically, in the spirit of Hughes’ own work.
Looking for Langston represents a split within the New Queer Cinema movement away from a realism grounded in the rhythms of the lived experience of late twentieth-century urban intellectual queers toward more rarefied, abstract, even academic subject matter. Where the films of Rose Troche or Bill Sherwood make an effort to convey some sense, however stylized or simplified, of what it was like to be a part of a queer urban subculture in the ’80s and ’90s, Isaac Julien’s film concerns itself with something far more amorphous—what Raymond Williams might call a structure of feeling, a constellation of historical, cultural and psychological factors that registers at the level of affect. In other words, Looking for Langston ultimately doesn’t tell us “what it was like” to be a gay man during the Harlem Renaissance, or any other time and place—in fact, it doesn’t tell us anything; it suggests, imagines, dreams about queerness and blackness, and about the expression of that queerness and that blackness through poetry, dance, and jazz. It’s a fantasia on the themes of homosexuality and race in the same way that Todd Haynes’ Poison (1991), another classic of New Queer Cinema, is a fantasia on the themes of homosexuality, persecution, contamination, monstrosity. Stylistically, Looking for Langston belongs to the tradition of surrealism and the avant-garde, even as it mixes references to films like Cocteau’s Orpheus (see below) with popular influences like jazz. These New Queer films put the emphasis on “queer”: not content to be conventional (i.e., straight-minded) films tricked out with gay and lesbian accents, they insist on a queerness that refuses to be incorporated into or even fully understood by members of the cultural mainstream.