screen gems

This sensual, stirring film was one of the first to center the Black, queer experience

Photo Credit: Looking for Langston, provided by MoMA

As relevant and thought-provoking today as it was in the late ’80s, British filmmaker Isaac Julien’s landmark short film, Looking For Langston, gives voice to a silent generation of Black, gay men.

In stark black and white, this impressionistic art film transports viewers back to the Harlem Renaissance and then moves through time and space with a transfixing lyricism. Its title is in reference to the influential poet and activist, Langston Hughes, but the work isn’t strictly a biopic of the man, rather it uses him as a metaphor for the queer, Black experience in the 1920s.

“Langston Hughes is an icon, and also an emblem of the closet,” says the film’s director, serving a reminder that, while he’s now widely assumed to have been gay, the poet never publicly announced his sexuality.

At a time when certain members of society were pushing for social integration, Hughes and other Black, gay men remained as private as possible, out of fear of further being ostracized and oppressed for failing to meet perceived standards of conduct.

Photo Credit: Looking for Langston, provided by MoMA

Hughes’ poetry—as well as the words of his contemporaries like James Baldwin and Essex Hemphill—echo throughout as the film weaves in both archival footage and scripted scenes, a number of which depict a speakeasy humming with life, a loving nod to New York’s famous Cotton Club.

Other scenes flow like a dream, and these are the instances where Looking For Langston becomes a provocative mediation on queer desire, stripping its stand-in for Hughes bare and staging him in lush scenes of striking nudity and intimacy.

While intentionally sensual, these moments are in direct conversation with the work of controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, some of which also appears in the film.

At the time, Mapplethorpe was the subject of fiery debates over censorship and free speech, and Julien drew inspiration from his explicit artwork, using it to comment on the way Black, male bodies were often positioned in culture as objects of society’s gaze.

Photo Credit: Looking for Langston, provided by MoMA

Looking For Langston debuted in 1989 amidst the growing AIDS epidemic—a disease that would go on to claim the lives of a number of the film’s actors. By resurrecting these voices from the past, Julien put them in direct conversation with the Black queer community of his time, yet another era where disease, fear and sexual shame stifled life, love, and creativity for so many.

Related: 10 beautiful, sexy films that celebrate Black queer love

But even (and especially) today, when conservative lawmakers threaten to strip marginalized individuals of their freedoms and anti-LGBTQ hate speech is on the rise, Julien’s short film strikes a chord. Through its beautiful imagery and fantastical reimagining of the past, Looking For Langston has created a space where the silenced can be heard.

For a limited time, New York’s Museum Of Modern Art is hosting a free, digital screening of the 42-minute short on its website, which you can check out here. Watch a brief teaser clip of the film below.

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