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Protest From Poet’s Estate Keeps Film Out of Gay Festival

Larry Horne could hardly contain his excitement at last winter’s Berlin Gay and Lesbian Film Festival when he saw “Looking for Langston,” director Isaac Julien’s study of homosexuality during the Harlem Renaissance.

“I considered it the first black gay feature film ever made,” said Horne, the director and founder of the seventh Los Angeles International Gay and Lesbian Film and Video Festival, which runs through Sunday at the Directors Guild of America Theater in West Hollywood.

Horne, who has shown all of the London-based Julien’s previous films, had decided to open the festival with “Looking for Langston,” which deals with intimate bonds between gay blacks and whites. Langston Hughes’ poetry is presented as a voice-over in parts of the movie. The black poet died in 1967.

“It would set the tone,” Horne proclaimed, “of a festival that was shaped along the themes of multi-culturalism.”

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But Horne’s dream recently fell apart when Ada Griffin, director of the New York-based Third World Newsreel, the distributor of “Langston,” called and demanded that he not show the film.

The Hughes estate sent a cease-and-desist letter to Julien in mid-June informing him that he would put Griffin, Horne’s festival and himself in legal jeopardy if the film were screened.

The cause for the crisis? Julien had secured the rights to quote Hughes’ poetry in the film, but only for use in Britain. (“Langston” already has been shown on “Out on Tuesday,” a gay series on Britain’s Channel 4.)

But according to Griffin, film maker Julien apparently wasn’t aware of the resistance he would meet from the “black bourgeoisie” who, she feels, “see Hughes as a racial icon.”

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“They (the estate) were appalled at any inference that Hughes might have been a homosexual and they wanted all mentions of him out,” said Griffin from her New York office.

Hughes’ sexuality has long been debated among academics. Lately, an acclaimed biography of Hughes’ life by Arnold Rampersad, published by Oxford University Press, was unable to confirm that Hughes was homosexual.

However, the editors of “Gay and Lesbian Poetry of Our Time,” published by St. Martin’s Press, included four poems by Hughes in their anthology.

Why the fuss then about “Langston”?

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According to Horne, “the power of celluloid is formidable, even if we’re talking independent art films--which is why I wanted to program this festival along multicultural themes.”

For Horne’s part, “the absence of ‘Langston’ doesn’t necessarily detract from the festival.” Rather, he says that “the mess” points out how “much we still need gay and lesbian film festivals.”

Julien, who was contacted at his London production company, SanKoFa, seemed to take the pulling of the film from the festival in stride.

“The Hughes estate had four major points of contention: that we delete all of Hughes’ poetry, all mention of the estate in the credits of the film and all excerpts of Hughes reading his poetry on NBC television, as well as pay for the estate’s legal expenses in suing us.

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“We will delete the poetry,” Julien said. “I want the film to get shown--and the film isn’t so much about Hughes as it’s about ‘looking’ for cultural pride.

“But I will not comply with deleting the NBC footage because that is part of the public domain. And even though we are trying our best to act in good faith with the estate, we will not go so far as to pay for their expenses.”

Officials from Harold Ober Associates, an agency that represents the Hughes estate, refused to comment on the legal or social implications of their cease-and-desist letter when questioned by The Times.


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