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(Credit: Marlon Riggs)

Film

'Tongues Untied': Marlon Riggs' pioneering documentary

@Russellisation

“My struggle has allowed me to transcend that sense of shame and stigma identified with my being a black gay man. Having come through that fire, they can’t touch me.” – Marlon T. Riggs.

Whilst experimental, personal filmic essays are often reserved for the artistic expression of private exhibition, there are some that become simply too pertinent that they break free from their own secrecy. Such was the case for Tongues Untied by Marlon Riggs, a film that expresses the filmmaker’s own perspective on the homophobia and racism shown towards gay Black men in the late 1980s and 1990s. Mixing poetry, music and performance, the artist creates a compelling and revealing glimpse into such struggles, well conveying the emotional toll that comes with constantly feeling at odds with the hegemonic status quo. 

Winning the Los Angeles Film Critics Award and Best Documentary prize at the Berlin Film Festival in 1990, Riggs’ film brought the struggles of homosexuality to the knowledge of modern America, amid the panic of the AIDS epidemic that caused public unrest throughout the end of the 20th century. Made, as the filmmaker himself expresses, to “shatter the nation’s brutalizing silence on matters of sexual and racial difference,” Riggs’ film gave a voice to those who had never been represented in film before, breaking new ground as Tongues Untied was embraced by progressive audiences. 

Famed for its authentic representation of style, as well as its passionate argument against social and political oppression, Riggs pioneered a new cinematic language that blended documentary and performance to create a multi-layered film that protested the stigmas of contemporary life. Pursuing a message of black gay pride, Riggs enlisted the help of Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam whose poetic verses and compelling interviews gave context to the wider discussion of homophobia. 

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Interspersed with expressive dance sequences and montages of poetry, several stories are told that challenge contemporary homophobia and racism, telling particular case studies about lonely drag queens and gay college students left bleeding after violent attacks. These are contextualised against the backdrop of modern America too, with Riggs unafraid of turning his attention to the depiction of gay Black men in popular media. 

Going after the likes of Spike Lee’s 1988 film School Daze as well as Eddie Murphy’s influential comedy special, Delirious, that both perpetuate homophobic tropes, Riggs expresses how the cause for gay rights was silenced in the face of the continued struggle for equality among the black community. Seeking a solution, the filmmaker tries to translate the lived experience of himself and so many, asking for solidarity among black people and systemic change from the wider American people. 

Though, whilst Riggs’ Tongues Untied certainly mobilises for social change, it also works to celebrate the black gay experience, showing their resilience in protest marches and their frenetic creativity reflected in Vogue dancers. Such formed a boisterous piece of art that rightfully incited social uproar and sparked a culture war in the late ‘80s, with Riggs inviting a censorship campaign as this furore simply brought more publicity to the film itself, enhancing its effectiveness at shaking up the social order. 

As Riggs said at the time, “implicit in the much overworked rhetoric about ‘community standards’ is the assumption of only one central community (patriarchal, heterosexual and usually white) and only one overarching cultural standard to which television programming must necessarily appeal”. With Tongues Untied, the filmmaker forced a method to such change, paving the way for such a revolution in black filmmaking in contemporary society.