Young, Closeted, and Black
Director Isaac Julien opens the door on Langston Hughes in ‘Looking for Langston.’ Plus gay ABC on DVD.
Langston Hughes is dead. He died in the closet. But not before breathing new life into an artistic expression held in the pale grip of the literary establishment of the early 20th century.
Langston Hughes was a poet, a playwright, a founding member of the Harlem Renaissance, and a grandfather of the Black Pride movement. After a brief stint as a Merchant Marine, Hughes landed in New York City and joined a small cadre of black artists and intellectuals dedicated to sharing their experience with each other, their race and the larger community. Hughes set the tone for this expression in one of the many essays he penned on social and political issues of interest: “So I am ashamed for the black poet who says, ‘I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,’ as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world.”
Interestingly, his penchant for honesty in expression and identity did not extend to all areas of his life. He carefully avoided discussion of his personal life, leaving later generations to assign meaning to his significant personal relationships. His closest friends and mentors were not closeted, yet he remained so.
Isaac Julien’s 1988 short film homage to Langston Hughes is a surrealistic exploration of Hughes’ words, Harlem Renaissance night life, and love between two black men. Coupled with archival footage, select Mapplethorpe photographs, steamy dream sequences, and poetry voice-overs, the overall effect transports the viewer into the very different world of a Harlem in revival and literary world in revolt. It is a beautiful and mysterious film of a beautiful and mysterious master of language. From Strand Releasing Home Video (www.strandreleasing.com).
John Stiles (www.johnwstiles.com) writes regularly for OutSmart magazine.
Desperate, Ugly, Grey, Brothers & Sisters
ABC’s gay TV comes to DVD
It seems lately that ABC is striving to displace Bravo as the gayest television network in all the land, and has chosen this month to release DVD collections of its four very gayest programs.
The tres gay sensibility found in this first season of Ugly Betty comes to us thanks, in part, to Betty’s (America Ferraro) young queer nephew, Justin (Mark Indelicato). Though the show has yet to unequivocally define Justin’s sexuality, UB creator Silvio Horta, on whom Justin is based, is openly gay. But the fact that the program is set in the world of fashion already makes it plenty homo-rific.
Following the negative attention garnered by the recent T.R. Knight/Isaiah Washington unpleasantness, Grey’s Anatomy execs might as well rename it Gay’s Anatomy . Nonetheless, producers kept its appealing GLBT storylines alive in the third season with openly gay bartender, Joe (Steven W. Bailey), narrating a special compilation episode—the same episode that includes a sexual reassignment surgery subplot.
ABC gave its sophisticated viewers another heavy dose of fabulousness with Desperate Housewives ‘ fourth season. Like UB, the show’s inclusion of a gay character (in this case, Bree Van De Camp’s son, Andrew, played by Shawn Pyfrom), is not the gayest thing about it. Dixie Carter, introduced this season as Bree’s (Marcia Cross) over-the-top mother-in-law, perhaps is.
In the premiere season of Brothers and Sisters, the 21st century answer to Eight Is Enough, the incomparable Sally Field plays Nora Walker, widowed and still attached to her five and a half adult offspring by varying lengths of apron strings. Not only does the hunky-yet-sometimes-queeny Kevin (Matthew Rhys) help Field put a fresh, new spin on the supportive mom template, but season one also ends with the possibility that the Walkers have a “funny uncle.”
Combined, the four shows have garnered 30 nominations to receive statuettes at the September 16 Emmy Awards, making any of these collections immediate classics in your library. Bravo! — Preview: Nancy Ford
Brothers & Sisters: The Complete First Season, available September 18; Desperate Housewives, The Complete Third Season—The Dirty Laundry Edition, available September 4; Grey’s Anatomy: The Complete Third Season—Seriously Extended, available September 18; and Ugly Betty: The Complete First Season—The Bettyfied Edition, available now. All from Buena Vista Home Entertainment (www.bventertainment.com, http://video.movies.go.com).
With ‘Cruising,’ everything old is new again
He’s not gay, nor does he have any discernible ties to the GLBT community. But William Friedkin is responsible for directing two notable films both with considerable discernible ties to, as well as irrevocable impact on, the GLBT community.
When it was released in 1970, Friedkin’s Boys in the Band was lauded as both an accurate yet screamingly stereotypical depiction of gay men in New York City. Ten years later, he returned to a gay theme with the dark and screamingly terrifying Cruising. New York was again the backdrop for the film based on the true story of a rash of violent murders plaguing the city’s gay S&M subculture.
Queer activists went nuts when word of Cruising’s subject matter leaked, insisting that viewers would believe this subculture was representative of all gay people. Their protests became a jumping-off point for organizations like GLAAD to oppose questionable depiction of GLBT characters in the media.
“But that world did exist and I tried to portray it objectively without any moral comment,” Friedkin says. “Those murders happened [in real life] and it was always my intention to make a film, set in that milieu, that would be an unsettling experience and to ask the question when you look at someone, ‘Do you really know who they are?’”
Beyond being classified as a suspense thriller rife with negative stereotypes, Cruising might now be more appropriately considered a cautionary tale. Earlier this summer, gay Houstonian, Kenneth Cummings Jr., was murdered in his home by a stranger Cummings met in a bar. The manner in which Cummings met his death — being stabbed in the head — could have been a page taken directly from Cruising’s script.
Warner Home Video re-releases Cruising on DVD this month, complete with Friedkin’s commentary and two bonus features: “Exorcising Cruising” and “The History of Cruising.” Some of the juicier tidbits reveal how consummate actor Al Pacino honed his character by improvising scenes at a leather bar, as well as the fabulously creative ways queer activists stymied location filming.
It’s available September 18 from Warner Home Video. View it and learn. Details: www.warnerbros.com. — Review: Nancy Ford
Family of Choice
‘Small Town Gay Bar’ reminds us how good we have it here
Small Town Gay Bar is filmmaker Kevin Smith’s (Chasing Amy, Dogma) documentary about two very rural Mississippi gay nightclubs and those who have found family there. Directed by Smith’s best gay friend, Malcolm Ingram, it’s required viewing for anyone who has become jaded with big city gay life. Watch it and thank God you live where you don’t have to worry (mostly) about who is watching you read this magazine. Genius Products and Red Envelope Entertainment. Details: www.smalltowngaybar.com. — Review: Nancy Ford