Tongues Untied

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Tongues Untied
Black-and-white poster of two African-American shirtless men, whose faces express frown. The behind man wrapping one arm around the front man.
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Marlon Riggs
Produced by Marlon Riggs
Starring Marlon Riggs,
Essex Hemphill Brian Freeman
Narrated by Marlon Riggs
Distributed by Frameline & California Newsreel
Release date
  • October 26, 1989 (1989-10-26) (American Film Institute Video Festival)
Running time
55 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Tongues Untied is a 1989 semi-documentary film directed by Marlon Riggs and starring Marlon Riggs, Essex Hemphill, Brian Freeman. 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.[1]


The film blends documentary footage with personal account and fiction 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.

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[edit]

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."

See also[edit]


  • Black American Cinema, Manthia Diawara.
  • Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices, (eds. Renov, Michael & Erika Suderburg) (London, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).
  • Gerstner, David (2011). Queer Pollen: White Seduction, Black Male Homosexuality, and the Cinematic. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. pp. 138–213. 
  • Racial Difference and the Homoerotic imaginary, Kobena Mercer

External links[edit]