Langston Hughes on Film: An Interview with Darren Canady and Randal Maurice Jelks

Langston Hughes (Photo: Jack Delano, 1942, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.).

In today’s post, University of Kansas PhD Candidate, Imani A. Wadud, interviews Darren Canady and Randal Maurice Jelks on their new project, I, too, Sing America: Langston Hughes Unfurled, a two-part documentary film about the life of African American poet and writer Langston Hughes and the most recent humanities scholarship on his work. Canady and Jelks are now in the process of producing the film, which will be released in 2020. The film explores the multiplicity of ways in which Hughes constructed his identity, participated in the international arts scene, and engaged with the American dream. 

Darren Canady is an award-winning playwright and Associate Professor of English at the University of Kansas. Originally from Topeka, Kansas, his work has been produced at various venues, including the Alliance Theatre (Atlanta, GA), Congo Square Theater (Chicago, IL), and the Old Vic Theatre (London, UK). His awards include the Alliance Theater’s Kendeda Graduate Playwriting Award, Chicago’s Black Excellence Award, the Black Theatre Alliance Award, and the American Theatre Critics Association’s Osborn Award. He is an alum of Carnegie Mellon University, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and the Juilliard School. He is a former member of Primary Stages’ Dorothy Strelsin New Writers Group and a past participant in the T.S. Eliot US/UK Exchange. He is an artistic affiliate with American Blues Theater and Congo Square Theatre. His more recent productions include Black Butterflies, Ontario Was Here, TRANsit, and Reparations. Canady currently teaches playwriting at the University of Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @DarrenCanady1

Randal Maurice Jelks is an award-winning Professor of American Studies and African and African American Studies at the University of Kansas. He also is the co-editor of the American Studies Journal. He is the author of two award-winning books, African Americans in the Furniture City: The Struggle for Civil Rights Struggle in Grand Rapids (The University of Illinois Press) and Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography (University of North Carolina Press). His forthcoming book, Faith and Struggle in the Lives of Four African Americans: Ethel Waters, Mary Lou Williams, Eldridge Cleaver, and Muhammad Ali will be released by Bloomsbury in 2019. Follow him on Twitter @drjelks.

Imani A. Wadud: Tell us more about this project? How did the project come to be organized in such a collaborative manner?

Darren Canady and Randal Maurice Jelks: Our film project is built off the work that my colleague Maryemma Graham did back in 2002 at the University of Kansas (KU). At the time, she organized the Langston Hughes Centennial Celebration, a conference that featured many distinguished writers, scholars, and actors, including Alice Walker, Danny Glover, and Farah Jasmine Griffin.

Jelks: In 2014, I called my scholarly colleagues and began a discussion about a Hughes documentary. I circulated the requirements for a National Endowment for the Humanities Media Makers Development Grant. I wanted to do this because I had been interested in Hughes since I was a college student at the University of Michigan. We were fortunate to have on faculty not only scholars, but in KU’s Film and Media Studies Department two outstanding filmmakers: Madison Davis Lacy–who earned a Peabody Award and four Emmy awards for his documentaries on Richard Wright, Hattie McDaniels, and the epic Civil Rights series Eyes on the Prize–and Kevin Willmott, an independent feature filmmaker who made two Sundance-featured films, the mockumentary C.S.A.: Confederate States of America and the fictional Only Good Indian, and co-wrote Chi-Raq with Spike Lee.

We also have KU PhD alum Carmaletta Williams, who co-edited and analyzed, with Professor J. Edgar Tidwell, the richly engrossing letters between Hughes and his mother Carrie in the book My Dear Boy. Other KU team members include Darren, a rapidly advancing playwright, and Tess Banion, a KU alum and novelist who has worked in both politics and as a film producer. In Lawrence, outside the university, we had a wonderful arts agency, Lawrence Arts Center (LAC), who were willing to work with this project by assigning Sarah Bishop, a PhD in English from the University of Virginia, to help us develop the grant. As a group, we watched a lot of documentaries together as we proceeded. We then organized ourselves as the Dream Documentary Collective to work in conjunction with LAC. Because we had KU scholars connected in the fields of history and literature, we were able to build a scholarly advisory team of the very best Hughes scholars, most importantly Arnold Rampersad, his chief biographer. Finally we received a wonderful endorsement from Michael Kantor, the Executive Producer of the PBS series American Masters. We worked with the PBS affiliate in Topeka, KTWU 11, as our PBS presenting station. Ultimately, the stars aligned in Langston’s Lawrence.

Wadud: How were you able to fully capture the artistry of Langston Hughes in the documentary?   

Jelks: Our first objective was to show Hughes as a multidimensional artist and not reduce him to a poet of the Harlem Renaissance. He considered himself a poet first, but he was so much more. This is why we took his manifesto “The Negro Artists and the Racial Mountain” as a theme to craft his wide ranging artistry around. Blackness(es) is the key interpretive lens for expressing diversity of Black humanity.

Canady: Honestly, that is the hardest part. Langston Hughes truly did it all: essays, histories, plays, musicals, opera, children’s literature, lectures, op-ed columns. His work spans a rapidly changing America, and his political and artistic responses were constantly evolving along with that change. The struggle of any piece trying to capture Langston is to honor the breadth and sweep of his talent, intellect, and humanity.

Wadud: What do you think is so meaningful and prodigious about Hughes’s artistry in relationship to the Black American public that you are trying to reach with this new documentary?

Jelks: I would like to make the argument that, as a writer, Hughes did not allow himself to be constrained. I also see Hughes as one of the great-grandparents of the cultural blossoming in the American Arts today that Black and Brown artists are leading, including Darren. Hughes’s use of the vernacular in poetry and in his writings is a progenitor for what is going on today.

Canady: Exactly. As a fellow Kansan, I’ve always believed that Hughes desperately loved everyday Black folks. You see it time and again in his writing; who he spoke to and for, who he moved among during his everyday life. He loved regular Black folks. Sometimes we forget how revolutionary it still is to focus time and energy on the Black working class.

Wadud: What source materials have you been consulting as you shape this documentary?

Jelks: There’s a rich bevy of Hughes’s photographs from his life, travels, and correspondences located in the Beinecke Library at Yale University, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, as well as other archives at HBCUs such as his alma mater Lincoln University in Pennsylvania and around the world. What we desperately need is more film footage of Hughes.

Canady: I would add that the correspondences we found in the archives from Hughes are juicy, witty, loving, occasionally waspish, and gossipy. But you know they’re also revelatory because they remind us that these big names who are our icons were also very human people who loved each other, debated each other, and fought each other just like all the rest of us do with folks we work and live with every day. And I suppose Black artists still do that – it’s just the platform is a digital format.

Wadud: Were there any challenges, foreseen or unforeseen, unique to making a documentary film and artistic project as scholars?

Jelks: My role as an executive producer is to raise money and this has been one significant challenge, especially when it comes to securing music for the film. The film has to be driven by original music with an interweaving of contemporary music from blues, R&B, and hip hop. My dream would be to create a soundtrack for this documentary as Ken Burns once did on his documentary series Jazz remixed with Tupac, Erykah Badu, Valerie June, Skza, Kirk Franklin, and Yolanda Adams. Rights to music are the costliest thing in film.

Wadud: Despite the wide-ranging work in which Hughes was engaged, is there something essential you hope to capture about him or his thought in the film?

Jelks: This is a story of a very private man, hence our subtitle “Langston Hughes Unfurled,” who expressed an intellectual honesty as well as joyful living even in the Jim and Jane Crow world he was born into and bristled against. In my opinion, Hughes separated his private desires to be a very public artist and voice for his community.

Canady: For me, it’s that he is one of America’s greatest artists because he could see so clearly not only who we are but also what we could become.

Wadud: Is there anything that you hope scholarly audiences might learn from your process by way of translating rich scholarship into the medium of film?

Jelks: We live in both a print and a digital world. The digital world is quickly overshadowing the 500-year run of print. We have to figure out how to use the latter more creatively in our scholarship. How do films, music videos, and other digital mediums work in tandem with older printed ways of practicing art, scholarship, and storytelling.

Canady: I’d like to believe that the project could serve as a reminder that collaboration between scholars and cinematic artists can be messy, messy work at times as we try to speak each other’s languages, but that there’s actually potential brilliance in that place of collision.

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Imani A. Wadud

Imani A. Wadud is a PhD Candidate and Chancellor Doctoral Fellow in the Department of American Studies at the University of Kansas. She is also the Project Mentor for the Wak’ó Mujeres Phu nū Womxn Oral History and Mural Project. Follow her on Twitter @imaniwadud.