Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Marlon Riggs|
|Produced by||Marlon Riggs|
|Narrated by||Marlon Riggs|
Tongues Untied is a 1989 experimental documentary film directed by Marlon Riggs, and featuring Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Brian Freeman, among others. The film seeks, in its author's words to, "...shatter the nation's brutalizing silence on matters of sexual and racial difference." To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Teddy Awards, the film was selected to be shown at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival in February 2016.
The film blends documentary footage with personal account and poetry in an attempt to depict the specificity of black gay identity. The "silence" referred to throughout the film is that of black gay men, who are unable to express themselves because of the prejudices of white and black heterosexual society, as well as the white gay society.
Riggs brings awareness to the issues Black gay men face. They are excluded from gay communities because these communities are white-centered and fail to understand the intersecting identities of race and sexuality. Riggs experienced this in San Francisco, California within the Castro District, in which he states, “I was immersed in vanilla” and witnessed the absences of the Black gay image. In addition, Riggs gives examples of media in which Black men are hypersexualized for white sexual pleasure and racistly portrayed Black individuals. Black gay men are placed in a divide because their voices are excluded from these LGBTQIA+ communities, but their bodies are sexualized for white viewing pleasure. Furthermore, Black men are supposed to represent hyper-masculinity, and when Black gay men associate with homosexuality, they are seen as being weak. With their gay identity, however, a Black men is expected to be both hyper-feminine and hyper-masculine. These are the stereotypes and stigmas that oppress Black gay men. In their Black communities, black homophobia is also present. Riggs displays footage of church leaders preaching that gay relationships are an abomination and Black political activists who consider black and gay to be a conflict of loyalties.
The narrative structure of Tongues Untied is both interesting and unconventional. Besides including documentary footage detailing North American black gay culture, Riggs also tells of his own experiences as a gay man. These include the realization of his sexual identity and of coping with the deaths of many of his friends to AIDS. Other elements within the film include footage of the Civil Rights Movement and clips of Eddie Murphy performing a homophobic stand-up routine.
The documentary dealt with the simultaneous critique of the politics of racism, homophobia and exclusion as they are intertwined with contemporary sexual politics. The film is a part of a body of recently released films and videos, which examine central issues in the lives of lesbian and gay Black people. Riggs’ work challenged television's generic boundaries of conformity during the late 80s and early 90s. The television documentary during this time was the conventional talking head, expert interviews, and personal testimonials commonly on public affair issues.
Release and reception
At the time of its release, the film was considered controversial because of its frank portrayal of gay sexuality. Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan cited Tongues Untied as an example of how President George H. W. Bush was using taxpayer's money to fund "pornographic art". In his defense, Riggs stated that, "Implicit in the much overworked rhetoric of community standards is the assumption of only one central community (patriarchal, heterosexual and usually white) and only one overarching cultural standard ditto."
Controversy over broadcast
When Tongues Untied was scheduled to be aired on the POV television series on PBS (and even before it was broadcast), it triggered a national controversy. Along with his own funds, Riggs had financed the documentary with a $5,000 grant from the Western States Regional Arts Fund, a re-granting agency funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency that provides funding and support for visual, literary, and performing artists. POV also received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts in the amount of $250,000.
News of the film's impending airing sparked a national debate about whether or not it is appropriate for the Federal government of the United States to fund artistic creations that offended some.
Reverend Donald E. Wildmon, the president of the American Family Association, attacked PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts for airing Tongues Untied but hoped that the film would be widely seen, because he believed most Americans would find it offensive. "This will be the first time millions of Americans will have an opportunity to see the kinds of things their tax money is being spent on," he said. "This is the first time there is no third party telling them what is going on; they can see for themselves."
Riggs defended the film, saying it was meant to "shatter this nation's brutalizing silence on matters of sexual and racial difference." He observed that the widespread attack on PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts in response to the film was predictable, since "any public institution caught deviating from their puritanical morality is inexorably blasted as contributing to the nation's social decay." Riggs said, "implicit in the much overworked rhetoric about 'community standards' is the assumption of only one central community (patriarchal, heterosexual and usually white) and only one overarching cultural standard to which television programming must necessarily appeal." Riggs stated that ironically, the censorship campaign against Tongues Untied actually brought more publicity to the film than it would have otherwise received and thus enhanced its effectiveness in challenging societal standards regarding depictions of race and sexuality.
Marc Weiss, the executive producer of POV, and Jennnifer Lawson, Vice President for Programming at PBS, vigorously defended the broadcast and, although some public TV stations did not air the film, many stations did, saying it should be available for people who wanted to see it.
The broadcast of the film was criticized by several conservative US Senators, who vehemently objected to using taxpayer money to fund what they believed were repulsive artistic works. At the same time, the national broadcast of Tongues Untied was applauded by many who resoundingly defended the work, among them Norman Lear's People for the American Way.
In the 1992 Republican presidential primaries, presidential candidate Pat Buchanan cited Tongues Untied as an example of how President George H. W. Bush was investing "our tax dollars in pornographic and blasphemous art." Buchanan released an anti-Bush television advertisement for his campaign using re-edited clips from Tongues Untied that violated U.S. Copyright law. The ad was quickly removed from television channels after Riggs successfully demonstrated Buchanan's copyright infringement.
The year 2019 marked the 30th anniversary of the release of Tongues Untied and 25 years since Riggs' death. What began as a single screening quickly became a sensation that swept across the globe, honoring the film that sparked a firestorm.
In a nine-day retrospective at Brooklyn Academy of Music, the life and work of Marlon Riggs was celebrated in “Race, Sex & Cinema: The World of Marlon Riggs.” Discussions and panels were led by the likes of Steven Thrasher, Raquel Gates, Yance Ford, Katherine Cheairs, Herman Gray and Steven G. Fullwood.
With support from the Ford Foundation, Vivian Kleiman and Signifyin' Works were able to spend the year introducing the work to a powerful new generation. Charles Stephens of The Counter Narrative Project, was instrumental in bringing Tongues Untied to organizations that support black gay men across the United States and fostering crucial discussions surrounding the film.
In May, 2019, the Peabody Awards honored Tongues Untied with a tribute, which Billy Porter of the award-winning FX Channel series Pose presented. He reflected that the film changed his life and gave him his voice at an early age.
New York Times critic-at-large Wesley Morris wrote "Tongues Untied is Riggs's unclassifiable scrapbook of black gay male sensibility (a hallucinatory whir of style, memory, psychology).... This is storytelling that arises from joy and pain and pride (Riggs’s clearest emotional forebear is James Baldwin)." 
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