Langston Hughes was one of the most respected poets in 20th century American literature, though you’d never know it from Isaac Julien’s pretentious and monotonous 40-minute hodgepodge that mixes old movie footage and homoerotic posing into a bewildering artistic failure.
Hughes’ homosexuality (which was not the key element of his writing) is the obsession here, with a Hughes-inspired figure (a man in a tuxedo who bears no physical resemblance to the poet) ogling hunky men who dance and play together in an anachronistically integrated 1930s nightclub setting. Occasionally, the tuxedo-clad man is walking on a beach, where he discovers a nude man; the two later retire to a bedroom for horizontal activities.
Every now and then, vintage film clips of Harlem during the 1930s and scenes from all-black movies interrupt the action. This old footage, which includes Bessie Smith’s 1929 film “St. Louis Blues,” is the only amusement found here.
As for Hughes’ poetry, forget it – a few snippets of Hughes can be heard, but mostly the writing of James Baldwin, Essex Hemphill, Bruce Nugent and Hilton Als fills the soundtrack, though none of these men are identified as the authors. Hughes actually turns up for a few seconds, in a blurry kinescope of a 1950s TV appearance where he read a poem to a jazz band accompaniment.
This DVD release also includes another Julien film, a short called “The Attendant,” which follows the same dull brand of queer surrealism (if you see one set of muscular go-go boys flexing and posing, you’ve seen them all).
Fans of avant-garde wackiness and gay-themed artsy pretension may be suitably distracted by this artsy wet dream. But if you are seriously looking for Langston, he’s not here.