Mediamatic Magazine vol 4#4 Paul Gilroy 1 Jan 1990

Climbing the Racial Mountain

Isaac Julien, Britain's leading black independent film maker and a prominent cultural activist has adapted and re-worked his controversial movie Looking For Langston as a performance piece for this year’s Edge. The film, described by Julien as a meditation, cruises across a range of complex and politically-charged problems. Among them, are the construction of Gay male sexualities around race, the night-time transformation and contested cultural meaning of urban space and above all, the difficult relationship between the nascent political cultures of black Britain and their African-American step-parents.


Climbing the Racial Mountain -

The image of Langston Hughes, sometime poet laureate of the negro race, is used to mark and index some of these ongoing difficulties. Unsurprisingly, the film provoked an antagonistic response from Hughes' American executors and their legal representatives. This conflict has itself been incorporated into the core of thenew performance. Isaac julien spoke to critic and lecturer Paul Gilroy.
GILROY: Both the movie and the performance versions of Looking For Langston elaborate upon themes raised by your earlier film Territories - how have you developed them!

JULIEN: Yes, the links are in the relationships between territory and identity, territory and control, the spatial politics of surveillance. The Langston performance was first staged in the Kings Cross area of London which has a reputation for sex and sleaze. Listen to the Pet Shop Boys singing. Because of the railway station, Kings Cross is also a gateway into England, a doorway between north and south.

The performance used Camley Street in particular, a street that is notorious as a cruising ground for straights - it has a special geography. The proposed re-development of the area also means that there are certain political ramifications to the location. The whole space is going to be knocked down and renovated into a kind of Covent Garden yuppie village. It's barbaric. I enjoyed the idea of putting my audience into these different and difficult spaces where they might not normally go and certainly might not feel safe at that time of night. I wanted people to go into these spaces and to think about their architecture and its relationship to different dynamic forms of power - public and private, micro and macro. Making the film meant that I could expose those locations cinematically but actually putting people - performers and audiences - into these landscapes has a different kind of excitement. Talking to people after the performance, women in particular, it's clear that they took a certain kind of pleasure from just walking through those spaces at night and seeing some different things located there. Some people also felt that they were being constructed by that performance into the role of voyeurs. Some of them embraced this new vantage point, others were more uncomfortable with it. It's so different from the cinema! The audience are manoeuvred out of their passive position. They can also participate.

So there's a link with black vernacular cultural tradition tool
Black vernacular cultures have their own tradition of breaking down the European division between art and life. It's not that I’m anti the performance crowd but I enjoyed bringing some of their high-cultural assumptions down to the ground. The idea really came together inCamley Street in the shadow of the gasometers. There, we had these two men walking towards each other, both circled by a bright light. The audience sees this encounter from the opposite side of the street and the traflic flows between the two groups - performers and spectators. A police car stopped and spontaneously involved itself in the action. It was perfect. Even when other people drove past in their cars it introduced a kind of tension. My audience had to engage with the occasionally intrusive presence of other types of spectators. That was exciting. 1 liked that.

You used certain features of that landscape - the canal, the Coroners court, the public gardens and the Gay night club Traffic - to stage the performance. What do they mean to you and how are they connected to each other!'

They all change. They go from being public during the day to being private at night. All of them host rituals, modern urban rituals which display things that are normally hidden from the variety of spectatorship that one associates with this high modernist reputation of performance art. The performance format makes visible the constellation of audiences drawn in by the memory of Langston Hughes. It brings them into a physical proximity to one another. That is quite unusual particularly when you consider how segregated people's lives can be. How different are the black and white audiences that come to an event like this? The dynamic in the performance was very much about white and black and how I could portray the lived realities which specify that some black and white people use these special places and spaces to routinely transgress the boundaries that hold their racial subjectivity and their sexual identities in place.
It was particularly strange at Traffic. A lot of my gay friends commented on how strange it was being there with everybody from the performance. People thought the performance had ended and then the police entered (not real this time) and it was part of the performance too. That was very interesting. To a certain extent all of those places and spaces involve performances in which people act out new roles and identities. 1 wanted to invoke a gay subculture in which people think they are free. Those subcultural spaces are policed and that fragile freedom can be taken away as quickly as it came. It's the insecure nature of those subcultural locations that needs to be emphasised.

Isn’t there a problem in being seen as a transgressor all the time/ What about the right of blacks and gays not to be exciting/ In the past I called that the boredom of transgression. It’s boring, it's a cliche - blacks are transgressive, gays are transgressive and when you put the two together then it gets really spicy. Who does this transgression excite or arouse? The different elements of the audience at the performance must have had different reactions. Some people thought that it could have been more provocative. They didn't read the performance as in any way transgressive and argued that it was rather conservative in fact, though others felt that it was right on the edge. There were three things that I was basically trying to do. One is to illuminate the necessary contestation which takes place over the memory, the legacy and the representation of an important black cultural icon like Langston Hughes. The second is to explore the possibility of having a sexual identity that many blacks would identify as a betrayal of their racial authenticity; and the third is to popularise some of the very interesting debates that have recently been happening around the history of black literature and cultural expression. These exchanges, especially the arguments that have raged over the meaning and significance of the Harlem Renaissance, demand that we produce some new critical discourses different from those which have been associated with European ideas and writings. The Harlem Renaissance offers an interesting point of departure from which we can talk about the role of criticism in the development of black art or the intellectual tools we need to analyse a body of black cultural work. These are the same questions that we are having to deal with in black Britain today. Looking For Langston was an attempt to open up a dialogue within the diaspora on these issues.

What has the reaction to the film taught you about the topography of black identity/ Langston Hughes was an Afro-American. You are a black man formed by some complex relation to England and Englishness. Black Americans have been deeply divided over the legitimacy of your borrowings from their cultural heritage. Do the legal difficulties you've experienced with the Hughes estate express the tensions between different national traditions of blackness and a broader diaspora sensibility/ Put another way, should the film really have been called Looking For Isaac/

There is a sense in which the title was unfortunate, but 1 would defend it. Langston Hughes is important to me too. He is a symbol not just of the issue of sexuality within the race but for the experience of the black artist - the conflict between the things an artist has to be and the things which are imposed upon the artist from the outside. These questions go right to the heart of how we understand cultural phenomena like the Harlem Renaissance. It was a very important point for blacks in America and for blacks worldwide. Black artists, writers and critics were working in a space which was segregated. It's extraordinary what energy all those people coming together produced. Langston was, of course, the most famous and influential black poet in America. Reading the biographies of him by Arnold Rampersad and Faith Berry, it's impossible not to be struck by what has been imposed on him.

In terms of the problem of being both black and British, looking at it from the American side, there is a distaste for what they regard as a kind of mongrel identity. They think you’re not quite African, you’re British but you're not quite British and you dare to make comments about black America! It's almost like 'how dare you?’. The tribulations I have experienced as a result of trying to show the film in America are relevant here. They raise questions of cultural affiliation and tradition through the issues of ownership and copyright infringement. These issues became a very important theme in the performance because they bring the idea of authorship into the foreground. In the court-room sequence there's a George Platt Lyons photograph that I've kind of appropriated and then you've got Mapplethorpe's photographs and a whole other thing about the relationship of control and desire. I would have liked to have used more of Langston’s own work, maybe having some of the poems read, from a tree or somewhere, in a very Brechtian way. However, the pressure from the estate led me to cut out a lot of his work from the final version of the film and of course from the performance.

Are you confident then, that the film and the performance go way beyond simply claiming a homosexual image of Langston fcaek from the clutches of the straight world? Why should black artists living in Britain now be referred to the life and work of Langston Hughes I
When people say that Looking For Langston is simply a gay film they are wrong. It's about black desire and the difficulties that engulf it. Similar problems exist with a number of other black cultural icons where sexuality is not the only or even the main issue. But it was at James Baldwins memorial meeting that I decided that I had to make the film. The power of the official, respectable histories that can form around the memory of the black artist is something that 1 fear. Selections from Hughes’s polemical essay The Negro Artist and The Racial Mountain were originally part of the film and I'm still sorrowed by their absence from it. That text has an absolute relevance to the situation of the black artist today. It deals in a very powerful way with the autonomy that our position necessitates. That, above all, is the reason that I’ve done the performance. It expresses the need to celebrate, affirm and extend that independence. Hughes put it better than I ever could in the concluding sentences of the Mountain text: We younger negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn t matter.

We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If coloured people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn't matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.