'Looking For Langston' is a Dreamy Glimpse of 1920s Queer Harlem
Updated: Sep 8
By Lazarus Rise
*No graphic sexual content is featured in this movie, but there are scenes are male nudity* The Harlem Renaissance was a period in American history that impacted how the world viewed black arts, literature, film, and politics during a time when Jim Crow laws were still prevalent and controlled the lives of Black people. It birthed and formulated the careers of many creatives, making its influence prominent in generations and generations to come.
One of the most successful writers to emerge around this period was Langston Hughes, who settled in Harlem in the early '20s as a young man. His writings pertained to the working-class African American experience, encouraging them to form their own rich artistic expressions and abilities. When Hughes died in 1967, he left behind a multilayered legacy which is revived as a hazy, surreal, monochromatic dream state in the 1989 film Looking For Langston. While Hughes never came out in regards to his sexuality, he was generally assumed to be gay and his writings are commonly interpreted as such, like one of his poems, “I loved my friend. He went away from me. There's nothing more to say. The poem ends, Soft as it began- I loved my friend.”
Looking For Langston reclaims Hughes as a Black gay figure, its timeline shifting effortlessly between a speakeasy/nightclub and archival footage of 1920s Harlem. The shots of Harlem from roughly a century ago bring another layer of life, reminding you that this was a real phenomenon that can’t be duplicated quite the same. Though Looking For Langston isn't intended to be a biography of Hughes’ life, it's instead a somber remembrance from a black gay cultural perspective with its opening scene setting the tone with the mourning of Hughes’ death. Downstairs, an after-party goes on, full of gentlemen dressed in elegant suits, drinking, flirting, dancing on tables with each other as sultry jazz music plays. We are shown sequences of a character, James (presumably a representation of Hughes), falling in love with a man named Beauty, and we follow both of them as they intermingle throughout the party and end up in bed together, sharing a quiet moment as poems of Hughes, Essex Hemphill, Bruce Nugent, Hilton Als, and James Baldwin are dispersed in-between fantasy scenes throughout the movie. Essex Hemphill's intense words stand out with lines like, "I am a revolution without bloodshed. I change the order of things, to suit my desperations. You can raise your legs, almost touch heaven. I can be an angel, falling."
The film's visuals are framed by the pained laments of yesterdays poets, expressly those from the Harlem era, and while many texts aren't explicitly obvious, it seemed like this was an era when Black queer individuals were able to somewhat thrive in their abilities. Looking for Langston is an exceptional poetic portrayal, exposing the audience to writers from the latter half of the 20th century and reviving the interest in Harlem Renaissance literature. It celebrates the presence of its pioneers and their contemporaries by creating a poignant, tender story that represents the real lives that came before and those to come after.
Looking for Langston is available in its entirety here: https://ubu.com/film/julien_langston.html
Lazarus Rise (he/him) is a writer, artist, and creative from Shreveport, Louisiana who now resides in Colorado Springs, Colorado. To stay up-to-date with Lazarus, follow him on Facebook and Instagram @dungeoncowboy. You can visit his official website here, dungeoncowboy.squarespace.com.