Langston Hughes was, above all else, a writer, a man of words. He wrote poetry, short stories, novels, plays and essays, all in an effort to express his vision. Aware of the power that could be found in various written forms, Hughes explored as many as he could. Aware of the power of cinema, he made a brief foray into screenwriting during the 1930s.
The 1939 film "Way Down South," which had a screenplay by Hughes, is one of the few surviving artifacts of the writer's brush with filmmaking. He co-wrote the script with Clarence Muse and wrote the songs for the musical, which tells the story of plantation slaves before the Civil War.
The film will be presented as part of "Langston Hughes: Black Film and Black Filmmakers" at 7 p.m. Friday at the Haskell Indian Nations University Auditorium. Kevin Willmott, filmmaker and Kansas University assistant professor of film and theater, is moderating the event.
Unlike much of his creative journey, Hughes' experience as a screenwriter was ultimately unsatisfying.
Like Paul Robeson before him, Hughes imagined that his stature as an artist outside of film would afford him the power to get his perspective on black life and culture onto the screen.
According to Willmott, the studios producing films that depicted African-American society in the 1930s were run by white executives. The studios made films that presented safe and comfortable images of black people. Hughes' efforts to introduce the more complex reality he wrote about in other forms were thwarted. It was in part due to this frustration that Hughes was coaxed into traveling to the Soviet Union to write for film there.
In the end, however, Hughes came to understand that his presence and that of other black artists in the Soviet Union was meant to serve a propaganda purpose and no films based on any screenwriting he did there were ever produced.
Portions of three documentary films about Hughes also will be screened at the festival. St. Claire Bourne will present clips from "Langston Hughes: The Dream Keeper," which he produced in 1988 for PBS. Mari Evans will show her film, "Remembering Langston: 1968," believed to be the earliest black film made to honor Hughes.
Also scheduled is "Looking for Langston" by Isaac Julien, a film that explores Hughes' homosexuality, an aspect of his life that is often overlooked.
Guest speaker is Thomas Cripps, a professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore, a prominent historian of black film.
Concurrent with the Haskell event is a Student Union Activities African-American Film Festival at Woodruff Auditorium in the Kansas Union at KU. The SUA festival begins at 7 p.m. Friday.
"The Color Purple" and "Devil in a Blue Dress" will be shown with commentary by Walter Moseley.