Tongues Untied (1989)
Reviewed by David A. Gerstner

Directed by Marlon T. Riggs; edited by Marlon T. Riggs; Starring Marlon T. Riggs, Essex Hemphill; DVD remastered by Signifyin' Works; released by Frameline, 2007; produced by Vivian Kleiman. 55 mins. Color and Black and White

Lately, I've been startled or, at the very least, discouraged when the name Marlon Riggs is mentioned to students (as well as colleagues) and it evokes a shrug of ignorance or some vague recollection about a black documentary filmmaker. Sadly, few are cognizant of the central place his work holds in twentieth-century film and black-gay history. This cultural aphasia is especially disconcerting given the controversy Riggs triggered with his short film, Tongues Untied (1989). The release of the film on DVD is a vital step in correcting this memory loss.

Tongues Untied is both a documentary and a work of poetry. Riggs was a unique figure who fused his roots in journalism with an embrace of the arts in general (including dance, music, film, and poetry). Tongues Untied and (arguably) the later Black is... Black Ain't (1994) meld the qualities of reportage with an experimental esthetic form that seeks to grasp the black-queer experience. The rhythmic and repetitive structure of the chant of "brother-to-brother" that opens Tongues Untied sets the vigorous pace for Riggs's exploration of the complex dynamics of black manhood and sexuality. Significantly, his experimental visual and sonorous concepts display the range and possibilities of same-sex love between black men. The direct and polemical appeal of Tongues Untied for "brother-to-brother" love (the "revolution" as Riggs pitches it here) grapples presciently with the issues of black-on-black homophobia, the seduction offered by white gay culture (and its attendant racism and homophobia), and the particularly painful political as well as lived experience of AIDS among gay black men. But it is Riggs's personal association with these issues that impresses on the viewer the struggle involved for black gay men to articulate—indeed, live—their cultural identity. The message and the artistic enterprise Riggs undertakes here is trenchant and relevant.

Tongues Untied was originally conceived for film festivals (the film won awards in such places as Berlin and Los Angeles), but when it was broadcast on PBS's POV, it caused a national furor on the part of religious and political conservatives. Significantly, the anger did not stop with the conservatives. Many Democrats, "liberal" blacks and whites, gays and straights were outraged by what they saw and heard. Homoerotic poetry read over the images of two black men kissing, caressing, or simply dancing in the nude were/are, apparently too much to bear for all cross-sections of the political, ideological, and racial spectra. Like his queer predecessor, James Baldwin (especially in his novel Just Above My Head [1978], where the concept of black "brother-to-brother" love is sexualized), Riggs unapologetically eroticizes the black-male body with the ardent intent of claiming that love between black men is a revolutionary and, therefore, necessary act.

In addition, the political fiasco around Tongues Untied took shape at the crucial historical intersection of AIDS funding and federally funded art—the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) specifically. With the likes of Senator Jesse Helms spearheading the homophobic bilateral attack on the dissemination of AIDS-prevention information and "homosexual" and "pornographic" art, Riggs—along with Tim Miller, Karen Finley, and institutions such as Frameline, Franklin Furnace, Centro Cultural de la Raza, and Visual AIDS for the Arts—took center stage as the American poèt maudit. The cultural row lasted for some time into the 1990s, with a devastating effect on funds available for artists who didn't raise the flag for "American Art." Ironically, Tongues Untied also became a weapon that Republicans used against one another during the 1992 Presidential campaign. Pat Buchanan used a clip from the film to demonstrate how George Bush (!) was purportedly abusing taxpayer's dollars.

This newly mastered DVD package is thus an invaluable document not only for the crisp quality of the film's image and sound (the soundtrack meticulously prepared by Mark Escott of Berke Sound). The DVD includes interviews with the director, AIDS activist Phil Wilson, cultural critic Herman Gray, filmmaker Isaac Julien, and Juba Kalamka of Deep Dickcollective who bring perspective about the period in which the film was released. Julien's thoughts on the differences between his own work and that of Riggs are especially revealing given the British filmmaker's views on their concepts of class and esthetics. The "Extra Scenes" from the film, however, are most enticing and satisfying. The outtakes producer Kleiman (who worked with Riggs on the original production) has selected are marvelous since we are allowed to see Riggs and poet-collaborator, Essex Hemphill, at work on the set. To hear these two artists rehearse together and direct each other's performance is a boon for any scholar interested in how the rich rhythms of Tongues Untied were achieved.

Though this DVD carries an institutional price tag, it is a worthy investment for academic and public libraries. At this time, Frameline has made it available institutionally for $200, but is working on a more affordable version for individual purchase. Tongues Untied marks one of the most fractious periods in American art and politics during the twentieth century. Since the fallout from this moment remains with us today, this document is essential for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and African American collections.

David A. Gerstner is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies in the Department of Media Culture at the City University of New York's College of Staten Island and Graduate Center where he is a member of the Doctoral Faculty. He is author of Manly Arts: Masculinity and Nation in Early American Cinema (Duke University Press, 2006) and editor of The Routledge International Encyclopedia of Queer Culture (Routledge, 2006).

Copyright © 2007 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXII, No. 4