Tongues Untied (1989) Dir. Marlon Riggs

It may have been called one of the ‘1001 Movies You Should See Before You Die’ but, before I started this project, I hadn’t heard of it. I was aware, just from looking at magazines and on TV, that the mainstream gay experience is the white gay experience. So, when I found this film and looked its subject matter I was eager to learn more.

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Tongues Untied first premiered on the festival circuit in the late eighties, but Marlon Riggs’s documentary (a term that can be used loosely here) caused an uproar when it was due to air on PBS in the early nineties. It was considered, by one republican presidential candidate, to be ‘pornographic art’ funded by the American taxpayer. But why? What is it about Tongues Untied that riled people up so much? It’s especially interesting to consider the reaction to this film when Moonlight, an independent film about a young gay black man, currently has a box office gross of $31.5 million (from a budget of $1.5 million) and was the winner of three academy awards (including Best Picture). And, like Moonlight, Tongues Untied is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

The film opens with a chant. Brother to Brother, Brother to Brother, Brother to Brother, over candid black and white shots of black man in various locations: the street, an outdoor basketball court, parks etc. Then, as a group of men introduce themselves to each other, the first poetic monologue begins: ‘Silence is what I hear after the handshake and slap of five.’ Silence is a key part of this film and, Riggs intends for you to know, that it is also a key part of the queer black experience. What he can and cannot say, and to who. He can be more open with women; about the racial prejudice he faces. However, his silence is also a coping mechanism: ‘Silence is a way to grin and bear it. A way not to acknowledge how much my life is discounted each day.’ Then, as a way of rebelling, the voices of these silenced men become louder and Riggs creates a sound wall of their voices that overload the viewer.

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Riggs and Hemphill.

This idea of silence as rebellion is the first stop on this exploration. An exploration that covers homophobia, racism, masculinity, Aids, Queer black culture, and societal pressures in fifty-five minutes. One section shows a man sitting, silently, looking into the camera as images of religious hate speech, Eddie Murphy’s faggot jokes, and scenes from Spike Lee’s School Daze wash across the screen. The effects of what he sees and hears, of being the butt of the jokes, and how sometimes it’s easier just to laugh along. I found this section particularly hard to watch.

The film, which The Guardian described as ‘a poetic look at identity’, is a collaboration between Riggs, a filmmaker, and Essex Hemphill, an activist and poet. They have created a movie that, unfortunately, is still relevant today and, uses the intersectionality between poetry and film to examine the intersectionality between blackness and gayness. As the film says, and attempts to answer: ‘What is he first: Black or gay?’

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Beyoncé in Lemonade, her visual album, released 2016, has shades of Tongues Untied.

Contemporary viewers might notice similarities between Tongues Untied and Beyoncé’s Lemonade. Though both projects are vastly different, I think, this comparison is the best way I can put this film to you. At just under an hour it’s a similar length to Lemonade, it is examining a specific intersection in society, it blends poetry seamlessly with art (and documentary), and it speaks a truth that, maybe, not a lot of people are aware of. There’s also an element of music and rhythm that is strung throughout with repeated chants and the music of black female singers such as Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Roberta Flack.

I learned a lot from this film, and it reinforced how important this project is for my own personal growth, but also how important it is for those who’s experience is widely recognised to acknowledge those that are different.

Tongues Untied is nuanced. There’s a resilience and resistance that is paired with shame and internalised homophobia. It is celebrating, and self-loathing, aware of where it sits in the cultural context and what it has to say. It acknowledges and dives deeply into the issues that affect gay black men but also shows them as desirable, sexual and sensual. It’s an attempt to convey an experience as art, and it is one that needs to be shared. As the film’s closing moments puts it: ‘Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act.’

Tongues Untied is available to watch, in full, here.

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