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  • Looking for Langston, Looking for Identity
  • Jingsheng Zhang (bio)


Released at the end of the 1980s, a decade of homophobia and horror due to the rapid spread of HIV, Looking for Langston (1989) is among the first cultural productions to represent the Black queer existence on screen. The film focuses on an American underground cotton club in the intersection of transhistorical queer imagery and surreal scenarios. The racially diverse queer community collected there is isolated from the social majority and exposed to social ostracization, abhorrence, and even attack, as portrayed at the end of the film. In the thirty years since the film was made, Black queer subjects are no longer as invisible as they were; yet Black queer identity is still fraught, and cannot fully be reconciled with nominal advances made in the areas of law or political equity. In this sense, Langston remains timely; its artistic representation and interrogation of Black and/or LGBTQ existence allows us to re-examine the very problem of identity itself. Different from traditional documentary and memoir, which are expected to reveal some historical truth, the film brings to the fore the process of and attempts at identification and identity-(de)formation. Rather than identifying with Langston Hughes, the icon of Black queerness, the film invites the spectator to reflect on “identity” itself within the cultural logic of the subaltern.1 In particular, it weaves archival footage of the Harlem Renaissance in 1920s with staged footage of an American cotton club of the 1980s, and presents this queer community in the style of what Muñoz has called the “British diaspora [End Page 48] aesthetic of the Black Arts Movement,” (62), that is to say, this American (his)story is represented in a British artistic idiom of the 1980s. In this way, with a special focus on art and artists, the film creates a transhistorical and transnational Black queer genealogy from the 1920s to the 1980s, which allows for multi-layered identity negotiation.

I argue that art is an effective agent of identity, and reaches beyond prescriptive orders such as law and politics; it can negotiate alternative possibilities of identity. By representing the material facts of the subaltern as well as the universal desire for identification, Langston does not disavow the necessity of identity. Yet in its presentation of Langston as a multivalent symbol, the film shows the ambiguity rather than fixity of identity and identification. Identity negotiation in Langston is a process of constant attachment and detachment. The tendency of identification is always interrupted and nullified, either in the plot or by the artistic form. Indeed, the film does not so much subvert identity as problematize its fixity.

I begin with the investigation of two concepts of intersectional identity: quare and disidentification. I will contend that quare is a methodology for the subaltern, facilitating survival in an oppressive and hierarchical cultural logic; quare techniques also allow for a questioning of the mechanism by which identities are defined, categorized, and culturally inscribed. I go on to analyze how the film’s pastiched restagings of Langston Hughes’s funeral prevent the spectator from simply identifying with the historical figure. Following this, I employ the Lacanian notion of mirror stage to conduct a deconstructive reading of a highly symbolic dream-within-dream scene, in which the Langston-like protagonist Alex (Ben Ellison) attempts to recognize himself in the desiring gazes of a mirrored imago named Beauty (Matthew Baidoo). Next, I investigate the scene in which the hegemonic gazing of the only main white character, Karl (John Wilson), is challenged by return gazes from the Black queer objects. I propose the possibility of transforming the supremacist logic of Karl’s scopic regime from within at the intersection of race, sexuality, and class. The essay concludes by showing how laughter, in a scene towards the end of the film, serves as a quaring strategy. Laughter creates a survival space for queer subjects, and also to protect them from homophobia. [End Page 49]

Problematizing Identity in Theory: Disidentification and Quare-ness

Scholars have long problematized isolated and stable identity categories, inventing new concepts in an attempt to make unexpected connections, and disturb the fixity of identity. A...


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pp. 48-75
Launched on MUSE
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