Tongues Untied launched an uproar of controversy when it aired as part of PBS’s P.O.V. series of documentaries, back in 1991. The religious right used it as an example of why U.S. citizens shouldn’t fund PBS or the National Endowment for the Arts. Lost in the raving was the film’s content: creative explorations of black gay men in America. Yes, the film includes pictures of a naked man: the film’s director, Marlon T. Riggs. It also includes strong language, with explicit references to sexuality. The language and nudity are central to Riggs’s honest, naked investigation of what gay black men experience.
Using music and spoken word poetry from talented black gay men, Riggs brings the film through a progression that reflects his journey: trying to escape racism from whites and homophobia from his fellow African Americans, he moves to San Francisco, where he finds more racism in a white gay world. But he also realizes something deeper and more troubling that relocation simply can’t solve. This realization, however, leads the film into a surprisingly inspirational direction
In fact, despite the hatred and stereotypes that Tongues Untied captures, it offers hope, and some humor. It also spotlights talent that originates specifically from black gay men, such as vogue dancing. The explanations of how to snap provide some of the many funny scenes, while the poetry itself captures a defiance that ultimately becomes liberating. The explorations of hate crimes, discrimination, and AIDS capture the brutality of all three plagues. Still, any message that the poets deliver ultimately transcend racism, sickness, and homophobia to show the universal need for tolerance, support, and self-acceptance.
I must admit that I found some of the rapid-fire repetition annoying and distracting, but I also realize that most of it reflects the sense of negative messages constantly shouted and repeated into one’s ears—such as the mingling of racist remarks from whites with homophobic remarks from blacks. Still, the film should pull in most viewers who take the time to watch it and listen to the profound words of its poets.
The DVD’s extras include recent interviews with filmmaker Isaac Julien, AIDS activist Phill Wilson, rapper and spoken word artist Juba Kalamka, and cultural critic Herman Gray. Marlon T. Riggs also comments on the film, via an interview from 1991.
Tongues Untied received Best Documentary at the Berlin Film Festival; it also received the Los Angeles Film Critics Award and numerous other honors. Alice Walker, acclaimed author of The Color Purple, said, “A black male warrior fighting for the right to love other black men, Marlon Riggs affirms what was nearly lost, newly found: the certainty that black male lives are utterly precious.”
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Duane Simolke, author, A Science Fiction Adventure Degranon: editor and co-author of the fund-raiser The Acorn Gathering: Writers Uniting Against Cancer.