Racism, homophobia, and images of desire: Depictions of queer black men in 1980s film and photography

CW: Racism, Homophobia, Erotic/Pornographic Photography. This article contains explicit images.

In this article I analyse the work of two artists in the 1980s and consider how queer black men were portrayed in art in the 1980s, with a specific look at how desire is depicted. I am focusing on the film Looking for Langston 1989 by Isaac Julien (born 1960), a black-British filmmaker who identifies as gay, and considering this in relation to Black Book 1986 by white gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989).

Looking for Langston is a black and white film which explores and celebrates black queer male desire. Black Book is a series of 97 photographs of black men, many of which are nudes, that showcase the racist gaze of white gay men towards black bodies. Through these works I shall be considering queer male desire and the complexities of racial power relations in queer spaces. I will be evaluating these artworks by discussing race and gender theories, and will be considering both British and US historic sociology together due to the transatlantic nature of Looking for Langston. By considering the artists’ place in a broader context and the complex racial power relations of the 1980s, I aim to identify the issues of Mapplethorpe’s work in comparison to the considerate portrayal of queer black male desire by Julien. 

‘The central question in Looking for Langston was how to portray desire, and more specifically, black gay desire’. Julien, 2016.

Isaac Julien, Still from Looking For Langston, 1989

Looking for Langston is named after Harlem Renaissance Jazz Poet Langston Hughes and is an homage to him, although the film is importantly not a documentary about Hughes, nor a biographical account. The film was dedicated to the memory of author James Baldwin, who wrote about the African American experience and the pressures faced by queer men. The film combines archival footage of Harlem alongside carefully staged scripted scenes. It is non-linear with no clear narrative or storyline, rather it is a collection of moments that explore the gay black male experience. It is a beautifully shot and composed film which focuses on aesthetic beauty throughout. The film celebrates same-sex desire and intimacy, and highlights the challenges queer and black men face. While the film discusses the impact of the AIDS crisis on the queer community, in this essay I will be focussing on the portrayal of same-sex desire, and how it differs in showing desire between black men, and interracial desire (specifically white/black desire).

A particularly poignant section of Looking for Langston features a black man walking through the ballroom, sitting down at the bar and getting a drink. A song is played, the lyrics are: “You’re such a beautiful black man but somehow you’ve been made to feel that your beauty’s not real”. This particularly moving moment is highly personal to Julien – it speaks deliberately to black men to remind them that they are beautiful, and condemns racist notions and stereotypes. In white-western society, black men are seen as hyper-aggressive, and socialised into adhering to hyper-masculine ideals and rejecting anything feminine. This is, as Alsop describes, due to ‘hegemonic masculinity in Western culture’ being ‘intrinsically white’ (Alsop et al, 2002). This emasculation causes black men to seek alternative ways to assert their dominance; Wallace explains that this can often involve ‘the subordination of women and gay men’ (Alsop et al, 2002). Earl Wright II, an African-American sociologist, has written about how, growing up, he was socialised into being hyper-masculine and aggressive, believing that, as a man, ‘one could not exhibit feminine characteristics’ (Wright, 2014). It is important to realise that ‘hegemonic notions of masculinity… [require] the rejection of all things feminine’ (Alsop et al, 2002). This rejection of femininity means that black men are not allowed to be seen as, or feel, ‘beautiful’. Ratliff further explains that ‘males are expected to be independent, assertive, aggressive, and decisive—to be tough and not show emotion’ (Alsop et al, 2002). It is important, then, that Julien constructs an alternative masculine ideal for black queer men, one that allows them to embrace their beauty, have moments of vulnerability and display emotion. 

Continuing with this idea of allowing black men access to beauty, Julien has talked about this film in terms of ‘aesthetic of reparation’ (Julien, 2016). Depictions of black men and queer men in the 1980s were extremely derogatory. Images of AIDS dominated representation of gay men in the media. Black men at the time were demonised, as representation was centred around gangster rap, and a very specific stereotype of the black man as criminal was enforced. Julien was specifically aware of this, and explained that ‘when you grow up with an exterior world that is clearly ugly… You actively want to involve yourself in appreciating the beautiful’ (Julien, 2016). By creating highly stylised and carefully crafted compositions in Looking for Langston, Julien is making amends and helping to change the image of queer and black people. He is specifically creating beautiful images for gay black men to admire and feel part of, to make them feel appreciated and beautiful.

Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book is a series of 97 photographs of black men. The majority are studio nudes, although several are portraits or show the men in clothing. The book is a homo-eroticised study of the black male body. Online listings of the book describe: ‘In Black Book, Robert Mapplethorpe presents an astonishing photographic study of black men today. In their diversity, impact, subtlety, technical virtuosity, erotic appeal, and deep humanity, these photographs constitute a stunning celebration of the contemporary black male’. This explanation of the series presents the images as without problem, as considerately honouring black male bodies. However, these images are not without issue. 

Many of the images have been criticised for fetishising the subjects and treating them solely as erotic objects. For example, images like Marty Gibson 1982, Untitled 1980, and Untitled 1981 are all anonymous fetishised depictions of male genitalia. The only aspect of the figure which is acknowledged is the genitals. Some of the images – such as Ajitto 1981 – are explicitly sexual and borderline pornographic. In this image, Ajitto is presenting himself to the camera, conducted by the white photographer. The key issue with these images of black male bodies by Mapplethorpe is that they push the stereotype of black men as hyper-sexual. Slatton has explained how ‘black men specifically [are] seen as child-like, animalistic, lazy, criminal, violent, and hyper-sexual’ (Slatton 2014). James Baldwin once described that ‘to be an American Negro male is also to be a kind of walking phallic symbol’ (Alsop et al, 2002). Mapplethorpe’s Black Book continues to perpetuate the idea of black men as purely sexual beings, and reduces them down to their genitalia. Man in Polyester Suit 1980 is potentially the most well-known image from the Black Book and, perhaps, the most problematic. As Mercer explains, ‘sex is [still] confirmed as the ‘nature’ of black men… his camouflage fails to conceal the fact that he originates essentially, like his dick, from somewhere anterior to civilisation’ (Yingling, 1990). Ultimately, Man in Polyester Suit ‘reduces its nameless model to a penis’, affirming the deeply problematic and dangerous stereotype of black men as hyper-sexual (Asen, 1998). 

A few of the images also pursue stereotypes of black men as being aggressive or bestial. Isaiah 1980 shows a black man dressed like a caveman. This portrayal links to issues of the global depiction of Africa and black bodies as being ‘primitive’, a wide issue in western media that perpetuates historic colonial imagery which is continually used to justify racist ideology. Raymond Murray 1984 shows the model wearing a durag and holding a knife. His hand is blurred, emphasising that he is in the middle of a stabbing motion. No longer a depiction of hyper-sexuality, this image feeds into the stereotype of black men as being hyper-aggressive. Ratliff explains that ‘African Americans continue to be disproportionately depicted as criminals’ (Surrey, 2014). This societal belief of black men being criminal means that ‘policies and laws are disproportionately applied to black men due to white normative expectations of criminality’, which is reflected in the levels of incarceration of black men in US prisons (Slatton, 2014). The Black Book fails to break away from damaging stereotypes and reinforces harmful ideas of black men being primitive and dangerous. In Black Book, black men are overwhelmingly portrayed as sexual, criminal, or animalistic.

Kay Larson has defended the Black Book, arguing that ‘Mapplethorpe’s black men are the first, in my memory of photographic history, to be given full dignity and equal statute as sexual beings…. The photographer obviously enjoys the flow of light edging and ripping off polished, dark bodies, just as he does the excitement of trading on a taboo’ (Yingling, 1990). This argument is, however, highly problematic. I have already explained that black men are seen as hyper-sexualised, and so it seems almost absurd to suggest that here they are finally being granted the status of ‘sexual beings’. The notion of ‘polished bodies’, as highlighted by Yingling, ‘literally objectifies them, making them ebony sculptures in a white fantasy’ (Yingling, 1990). The terminology of this statement is also historically challenging. The idea of ‘polished’ black bodies is reminiscent of slave auctions, where auctioneers would oil African slaves to make them appear more healthy and attractive to potential buyers. An advertisement for a slave auction in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette 1771 focused on the darkness of the enslaved boy’s skin as a selling point. In the 1688 novella Oroonoko, Aphra Benn describes the skin of an African slave hero as ‘perfect ebony, or polished jet’. While it can be problematic to relate contemporary images of black people to images of slavery, American history is slave history, and modern American (and British) society is still intrinsically built upon the racist legacy of slavery. As society is still not fully detached or recovered from that, descriptions of black bodies as ‘ebony’ or ‘polished’ are a harmful part of that legacy. Mapplethorpe has complete power in the creation of these images, both as the photographer and as a white man with dominance in a queer space. Rather than breaking from racist historical narratives, he continues to push them.

Looking for Langston discusses the dominance of white men in queer spaces, with specific reference to Mapplethorpe’s Black Book. In one scene, a white man walks though and admires projections of photographs of black men from Black Book. This section ends with the white man handing money over to a black man after they’ve had sex. The voice over for this section features a man talking to this white man about the black man – he says ‘‘you’re always busy, seeking other things of him, his name isn’t important, it would be coincidence if he had a name, a face, a mind… to you he’s only visible in the dark”. This is a deliberate criticism of Mapplethorpe’s images and the wider issues to which they are linked. Julien shows a white man admiring these photographs, demonstrating that they are created for the pleasure of the white queer male gaze. The voiceover explaining that there is no care for a name or face is reflective of how many of Mapplethorpe’s images of black men do not feature the models face, only their genitals. In an article written by Julien and Mercer, they write that ‘according to Mapplethorpe’s line of sight: Black + Male = Aesthetic Erotic Object’ (Mercer and Julien, 1996). Julien is specifically highlighting this notion and criticising it in this scene. He affirms this objectifying gaze as applicable to many white queer men, and highlights the complex racial power relations at play within the gay community.

Looking for Langston also discusses the intrusion of white queer men into black queer spaces, and the problematic power relationship between white and black queer men. In his essay, ‘All the Sad Young Men: Whiteness as Melancholic Haunting in Black Queer Independent Film’, Samuel Park discusses three films, including Looking for Langston, and the narratives around interracial desire. He explains that, ‘Looking for Langston… function[s] as [a] fascinating case [study] of the haunting, repressed nature of whiteness in contemporary black queer independent film’ (Park, 2011). Park highlights a specific part of the film, where a black man looks to gain the attention of a white man, but is rejected, and ‘appears to internalise this rejection’ (figures three – five) (Park, 2011). Park goes on to explain that the racial power dynamics within queer spaces means that black men seek the approval of white men. Problematically, ‘visibility in queer culture [favours] white bodies’, which means that queer men of colour are outcast from the ideal (Park, 2011). Black queer men, with intersectional marginalised identities as black and gay, are pushed far from the hegemonic ideal. As ‘one’s status as a man is never secure but in perpetual need of validation by other men’, black queer men seek validation from the nearest hegemonic ideal – white gay men (Alsop et al, 2002). While Julien struggles to fully identify this issue in Looking for Langston, it is still an important underlying theme. The film does discuss how ‘in the gay marketplace of desire… queers of colour… are frequently thought to exist for the sexual service and pleasure of economically advantaged white men’, and this is evident in Mapplethorpe’s images of black men (Park, 2011). They show the dominance of the white queer gaze, and, as Alsop explains, ‘white gay men, as with white men of any sexual orientation, benefit from white cultural dominance’ (Alsop et al, 2002). Mapplethorpe has used his power as a white man to push certain stereotypes about black men, and presented these black bodies in a way that show they exist for his pleasure and desire. 

Both Julien and Mapplethorpe showcase desire around black queer men, however, while Looking for Langston celebrates same-sex black male desire in a loving and considerate way, Black Book is highly problematic and depicts black bodies in a fetishised way that enforces harmful historic stereotypes. Looking for Langston specifically calls out this white racist gaze and illustrates the damaging effects of white queer men in black queer spaces, with specific reference to Mapplethorpe. Julien and Mapplethorpe were two major queer artists in the 1980s, their work is similar in both aesthetics and content, and they both show desire for black male bodies. However, their images of desire are affected by their own identities – Julien as a black, queer man challenges stereotypes and expresses desire in a way that specifically speaks to the queer black experience. Mapplethorpe, on the other hand, seems unaware of his power as a white man, and his images of black bodies appear fetishistic and like fascination studies for the artist.

 Portrait of Isaac Julien, 2019, taken in the exhibition Rock My Soul at Victoria Miro (2 October–2 November 2019). Photography: Matt Writtle for the Evening Standard. https://www.victoria-miro.com/news/1392


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  • Yingling, Thomas. ’How the Eye is Caste: Robert Mapplethorpe and the Limits of Controversy’, Discourse, 12:2, 1990, 3-28

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