By Alexander Glover
“Out of the little breath of oblivion that is night, take just one star,” said Langston Hughes in his poem Stars (1921). In 1989, British artist Isaac Julien (b1960) took on this lyrical advice from his American hero by making Hughes the star and focus of his influential work Looking for Langston. This exquisitely beautiful monochrome film centres on the life of Hughes (1902-67), peering in on his relationship to his fellow black artists and writers who were part of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s.
The film consists of a combination of archival newsreel footage of Harlem during this lively period, and original scripted scenes written by Julien himself. The result is a seamless non-linear impression of what it might have been like to be in the company of the extraordinarily private Hughes. Although he never publicly announced his sexuality, it is widely assumed that Hughes was gay. Known primarily for his offerings as a poet, social activist, novelist, playwright and columnist, Hughes was one of the first black Americans to make a living as a writer. The fact that he never publicly came out as gay makes this illustrious yet elusive figure all the more attractive as a cultural icon.
Image: Isaac Julien, Film-Noir Angels (Looking for Langston Vintage Series), 1989/2017