Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes was an African-American writer and poet who made a social impact through his writings. Part of his life, as seen in a short film premiering on Friday, was spent in Lawrence.

Last summer, Randal Jelks, a professor of African-American Studies, sat down with a group of scholars on the life of Langston Hughes. Hughes was a key voice of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s. They planned out a new documentary idea about the life and writings on Hughes. The discussion included the decision to search for an endowment grant that would fund their movie, "I, Too, Sing America: Langston Hughes Unfurled, A Doc Film."

The film eventually got its funding March 23 by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The group was awarded $50,000 to develop the film, according to a press release.

The title of the documentary comes from a famous poem titled "I, Too, Sing America" written by Hughes in 1945 about race relations. The group, called "Hughes Dream Documentary Collective," is teaming with the Lawrence Arts Center to make the film.

While the documentary is only in the pre-production phase, it started with a quest to gain awareness on Hughes. Jelks said he noticed the sparse collection of Hughes' life in Lawrence so he looked through the body of film of Hughes life. The extensive collection of anything about Hughes is at Yale University, and Jelks worked with the people there to see if any footage or images could help the story in the documentary.

“If you see Hughes’ quotes on Twitter, people might not know who said it,” Jelks said. “No one knows the interesting complexity of the man and the wonderful richness of his life. We thought we should bring that back to the American public.”

Jelks also said he was surprised about the lack of representation of Hughes in Lawrence. There are very little signs or statues or anything big in Hughes honor aside from the Lawrence Arts Center, which Jelks said shocked him.

The filmmakers are focused on how capturing how Hughes’ roots in Lawrence helped shape his identity and career, Jelks said. They know Hughes’ story has to be told in a way that emphasizes his ties to Kansas. 

“As global as the reach of his writing would eventually become, what we're arguing is that you can't fully grasp the themes and impulses in his work until you look at how his Kansas childhood propelled the explorations of his writing career,” said Darren Canady, an English professor and playwright at the University. 

The documentary is composed of two parts, one focusing on his life and the other on his writings. As of now, Jelks said, it will be composed of interviews, clips and images of Hughes life and narration while also trying to speak to a young, modern audience.

“We need to get creative and create how we are going to speak to young audience through Hughes' voice,” Jelks said.

The filmmakers will look for young actors and young voices in Hollywood to help with the film. Jelks said he is looking for hip-hop types, whose modern voice could help bring out Langston’s poetry.

“One could argue that Langston’s poetry and verse were predecessors to hip-hop in the '70s and other things,” Jelks said. “We will reach out to kids that will come of age when the film comes out and reach out to the film industry as a whole.”

Canady is one the writers of the film and said his involvement in the film started with Jelks, who he referred to as the “mad genius” of the film.

“We're working hard to revise and refine what exactly is the story we're telling about Langston Hughes' life,” Canady said. “Certainly, when your subject has such a rich, varied and historic output as Hughes', you could take any number of approaches, but we want to make sure we choose one that highlights what makes him still one of the most vital writers in American history.”

While the filmmakers continue to think of conceptual ideas, they will try setting up fundraising efforts to fund this documentary.

“We’ve got this far, and we’re lucky,” Jelks said. “The competition is fierce, and we’re lucky to have gotten this far because most documentaries and films don’t get this far.”

A group of scholars who helped work on the documentary will hold a panel at the Free State Festival at the Lawrence Arts Center, located at 940 New Hampshire St., from June 20-25 talking about the documentary and his life and writings.

As of now, it’s just a process of finding footage and finding the right people for the film. Davis, Jelks and Canady will look through other people’s collections of Hughes work and see if anything can help with the film. The remaining preliminary work for the documentary will take place over the course of the remaining year. 

— Edited by Samantha Harms