Revisiting Isaac Julien’s Stunning Reimagination of Queer Black Sexuality

A selected number of scenes, storyboards, polaroids, as well as a number of other images and mementos were the subject matter of “I dream a world” Looking for Langston’, the recent and monumental exhibition at the Victoria Miro. It is a something of a testament, both to the timelessness and necessity of Isaac Julien’s 1989 film ‘Looking for Langston’ as well as to the dearth of images of unapologetically queer and tender black male sexuality, that the work and imagery exhibited in the gallery space are still so rare. Indeed Julien’s work feels as challenging, incendiary and necessary now as it must have felt in 1989. At the Victoria Miro last Thursday, Josh Rivers of Gay Times along with QUEERCIRCLE, facilitated a fascinating conversation with Julien that illuminated the rich histories behind his still incendiary images, the stories of the actors, and the lasting legacy of ‘Looking for Langston’.

“From the moment we started to the moment we finished, absolute joy.”
– Isaac Julien

It was work sprung out of a lack. A non-linear, queer noir fantasy channeling the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance, envisioning a wake for the poet Langston Hughes, that simultaneously stands outside of time itself. As Julien explained it was about “making images that [he wanted] to see.” ‘Looking for Langston’ aimed to fill that gap. Whereas Mapplethorpe’s work depicting queer black masculinity sometimes strayed into the voyeuristic and even objectifying, Julien’s images around us were evidence of the undeniable tenderness with which he treated his subject matter — sprawled in white sheets, haloed in flowers, adorned and glittering like angels, a queer, soft carefree blackness; imagery that evaded us then in mainstream LGBT+ narratives, and still for the most part evades us now.

When asked if he intended to created something so enduring, Julien responds that naturally “one of the sort of ambitions [was to create something evergreen].” As we moved through the space, Julien was asked to explain the still depicted below, one of the film’s most radical and famous scenes:

(Pictured ‘Beauty’ & ‘Langston’) After George Platt Lynes (Looking for Langston Vintage Series), 1989/2017

Pictured here ‘Beauty’ & ‘Langston Hughes’ || After George Platt Lynes (Looking for Langston Vintage Series), 1989/2017

He describes it as “kind of a parody of a famous George Platt Lynes [image], [bringing these two characters] [one] mythological” and the other “real life [Langston]” together in an act of “poetic justice”, a decisive attempt to “make queer black desire a part of the conversation.” One of Julien’s grand aims was to “repopulate [these classic images] with black bodies.”

In a recent GMFA survey, 75% of black men claimed they had personally experienced racism on Britain’s gay scene. This conversation about the treatment and presence of black bodies (or even the lack thereof) in queer spaces is one that remains as pressing as ever. Indeed Julien said he created the work to explore how the “black body politic interfaces with the gay body politic.” The work of Essex Hemphill, who Julien described as a ‘poet-warrior’ often meditated on this question, and for him was an important catalyst in the creation of ‘Looking for Langston.’

“[We were] really privileged to give our time to make this film.”
– Pedro Williams

As ‘Looking for Langston’ rapidly approaches its 30th birthday, Julien views the exhibition as an “act of conservation”, a way of “creating a space of reparation for a new audience.” The still persisting beauty of Julien’s vision and of the images he has created is undeniable. Some stars of the film were even there in the flesh, a presence made all the more poignant by Julien’s explanation that its two protagonists, Ben Ellison (Langston) and Matthew Baidoo (Beauty), and the subjects of arguably its most sensuous and enduring images are no longer with us.

Reunited || Matt Fennemore and Pedro Williams pose with their younger selves

“Make sure those stories are retold and retold and retold.”
– Isaac Julien

Without ‘Looking for Langston’ there is no Moonlight. It is a wonderwork that drew upon the best of queer black tradition, and paved the way for the queer black narratives that we see today, and will surely see tomorrow. “[There was] a strong impetus to make works that reach forward”, Julien said. “Make sure those stories are retold and retold and retold.”

(“I dream a world” Looking for Langston, at Victoria Miro ran from 18 May – 29 July 2017. A number of select images along with some background from the exhibition are still available on their website.)