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 byMarlon Riggs
Produced byMarlon Riggs
StarringMarlon Riggs,
Essex Hemphill Brian Freeman
Narrated byMarlon Riggs
Distributed byFrameline & California Newsreel
Release date
  • October 26, 1989 (1989-10-26) (American Film Institute Video Festival)
Running time
55 minutes
CountryUnited States

Tongues Untied is a 1989 experimental documentary film directed by Marlon T. Riggs, and featuring Marlon 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.[1]


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.

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."

Tongues Untied @ 30[edit]

Fall, 2019 marks 30 years since the release of "Tongues Untied," and 25 years since Riggs passed. To honor this anniversary, Signifyin' Works President Vivian Kleiman has launched "TONGUES UNTIED @ 30"—an international celebration of Riggs' life and work. It will launch with an 8-day retrospective of his entire body of work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. This comprehensive series will also include work that influenced Riggs and work that was influenced by him. Other confirmed locations include: Atlanta, Berkeley, Honolulu, Mumbai, Oakland, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Yale Film Studies.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Berlinale 2016: Panorama Celebrates Teddy Award's 30th Anniversary and Announces First Titles in Programme". Berlinale. Retrieved 20 December 2015.
  • 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]