TONGUES UNTIED (1989)

  • Director: Marlon T. Riggs
  • Starring: Marlon T. Riggs, Essex Hemphill, and Brian Freeman
  • Accolades: 2019 Slate Black Film Canon, shown at Berlin International Film Festival
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming with Kanopy (library app), stream with subscription on The Criterion Channel, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Tongues Untied is probably better known for the controversy it caused in a nation that was only partly ready for it in 1989, than it is for its actual content. Pat Buchanan even attempted to use the idea that the film (originally created for PBS’s POV series) was partly funded by a government arts grant as a wedge in his primary battle with the current President, the first George Bush. But Tongues Untied aired as scheduled, most PBS stations carried it, it won a prize at the Berlin Film Festival, and Pat Buchanan lost the primary. Honestly, today it feels like an important work of art, perhaps, but it also feels sort of tame compared to the ruckus it raised in 1989. Because, I mean, I hope you like spoken word poetry, but this is basically “Spoken Word Poetry: The Movie.”

So Tongues Untied is one of those things that I think has a lot of redeeming value but I don’t actually feel super qualified to write about or comment on. As a cultural document, it’s fairly unique, a documentary about, by, and for Black gay men in the 1980s. It covers a wide variety of issues, from religious persecution to homophobia to Black men being turned away at the door of gay clubs. The engine of the thing is primarily the spoken word poetry of Essex Hemphill, who performs throughout the film. Hemphill was living with HIV at the time the film was made, and though HIV briefly comes up in one of the film’s segments, Hemphill’s own struggle is never actually mentioned. The whole film is about an hour long, having been originally been aired in a one hour PBS time slot.

The film was directed by the activist Marlon T. Riggs, who spent his career advocating on behalf of the rights of both the Black and Queer communities. The film discusses the way each community can sometimes view the advances of the other as mutually exclusive, or people who are members of both as somehow betraying one or the other. This is, of course, not how the reality of the situation actually works. Riggs himself had been diagnosed with HIV in 1988, not long before filming Tongues Untied. He directed several more films and edited several anthologies, despite his deteriorating health, including 1992’s Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regret), focusing on several gay men living with HIV and dealing with the dual stigmas of infection and homosexuality. In 1994, Riggs passed away due to complications from AIDS, at the age of 37. His final project, titled Black Is… Black Ain’t, was completed posthumously by other members of the production team.

If you’re going to fit it into some pre-existing genre, Tongues Untied will definitely be discussed as a documentary. But this is not what most people think of when you say “documentary,” in which someone takes a camera and points it at some stuff that’s happening. It’s all staged, in its own way. Much of it is cut to the rhythm of various pieces of poetry, interspersed with recurring noises or images. Or it’s Riggs or someone else talking about something that happened to them, sometimes with the same kinds of recurrences. So it’s certainly very constructed, if not in the same was a fictional film. It’s more like an essay, from one of the anthologies Riggs edited, than what we would think of as a documentary. 

Tongues Untied really wouldn’t seem out of place in almost any college course today, but in 1989 just the idea of a film about and by gay men was enough to send a lot of people into a spiral. Pat Buchanan called it “pornographic and blasphemous art,” though the former is only true if you think that literally acting like gay people exists and are actual humans makes something “pornographic,” and as far I can understand to refer to something as “blasphemous” it does need to be… related to religion in some tangential way? Buchanan even released a TV that included brief clips from Tongues Untied, which was quickly removed from the air after Riggs enforced his copyright. To her credit, the head of PBS went to the mat for the program, and it aired as scheduled. The film presents a perspective that literally no one was presenting when they did this, and as a very early shot in an ongoing revolution it is now more widely available than it’s ever been. Riggs himself said that Tongues Untied was meant to “shatter this nation’s brutalizing silence on matters of sexual and racial difference,” which sounds on brand. 

And that silence needed to be shattered, because, among many other problems, it was a lie. People like Pat Buchanan act like the very existence of gay people, of trans people, of non-binary people, and of many other real types of people is new, but all of those people have always been here. This idea that there was this 1950s Pleasantville lifestyle where everybody lived in identical houses and watered their lawns in perfect dresses, and everybody was straight and white and had 2.5 kids, is just complete nonsense. People who are trying to “hold onto” some version of that are really trying to enforce their right to just ignore other people’s humanity. So I’m all for Tongues Untied fighting that fight, which unfortunately is still going on 32 years later.

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