Tongues Untied

USA, 1989, 55 mins
Director: Marlon T. Riggs

+ intro by programmer Rico Johnson-Sinclair

What does it take to claim your rightful Black identity, as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community? Poignant yet playful, and affirming in the most important ways, Tongues Untied speaks to the damage Black queer men do to their sense of self in majority white and gay communities, and how to break the cycle.

Marlon T. Riggs on ‘Tongues Untied’
In doing documentary work, I’ve noticed there are certain safe political subjects that we, as Black filmmakers, can deal with: racism, African-American history, culture. Yet within all of the excellent works there was this glaring void, this absence, as if the history of homosexuality within the Black community didn’t exist. All these things we were talking about – our history, our legacy, our culture – excluded any mention of those relations within the context of the lives of people we consider heroes.

This void was very troubling as I watched it over time. I want Tongues Untied to show the multiplicity of our conditions within the Black community, and how we deal with issues of sexuality and race, gender, class, political consciousness and responsibility, and identity. Identity is a big issue. As some would phrase it, ‘What are we first? Black or gay?’ I try to invalidate that argument. My message is that the way to break loose of the schizophrenia in trying to define identity is to realise that you are many things within one person.

Tongues Untied is explicitly a point-of-view work. It does not attempt in any fashion to address so-called ‘balance’ or ‘objectivity’. I am a gay man. I am making this work from this perspective. There is no debate about whether my life is right or wrong – it is right, period.

A contemporary review
With an editing style that often seems to be choreographed to a rap beat, Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied takes on the complacency of whites and blacks, hetero- and homosexuals, in a bravura display of controlled anger. As well as questioning the validity of the perception of Black gays by white gays – hypertrophied figures of fantasy, often enacting a kinky variation on slavery and humiliation – Riggs details the landmarks (autobiographical?) of humiliation that a black gay has to endure.

This begins with a childhood spent in the Southern state of Georgia amongst local rednecks (‘motherfuckin’ coon’), followed by confusion over emerging sexuality (‘a punk’), and rejection by his contemporaries because of educational attainments (‘Uncle Tom’). Ironically, what Riggs’ modern black gay ends up confronting is the quintessential goal of the old American pioneer: to find a place of his own and establish an identity.

That all this takes place under the shadow of AIDS hardly needs to be mentioned. At the heart of the film (which has no formal narrative) is a quest for unalloyed acceptance, beginning with an urgent incantation of ‘brother to brother’, spoken by a group of black voices over images of African, Caribbean and American blacks (the latter in that perennial Hollywood arena of ghetto life, the makeshift basketball court). The film then tries to place these blacks within the homosexual landscape of modern America.

Tongues Untied is rough around the edges and often inelegant in style, but it courageously points out the woeful gaps in American cinema’s dealings with the black experience.
Farrah Anwar, Sight & Sound, July 1991

Director: Claire Lawrie

UK 2018
30 min

Director: Marlon T. Riggs
Production Company: MTR Productions
Producer: Marlon T. Riggs
Field Producer: Colin Robinson, Ron Simmons
Associate Producer: Brian Freeman
Production Assistant: Donald Woods
Screenplay: Joseph Bream, Craig Harris, Reginald Jackson, Steve Langley, Alan Miller
Director of Photography: Marlon T. Riggs
Additional Photography: Rick Cooper, Nestor Davidson, Vivian Kleiman, Alex Langford, Calvin Roberts, Scott Sinkler
Graphics: Robert Kinnard
Editor: Marlon T. Riggs
On-line Editor: Vince Casalaina
Titles/Effects: San Francisco Production Group
Music: Alex Langford, Steve Langley, Marlon T. Riggs
Music Performer (Saxophone): Idris Ackamoor
Music Performer (Drums): Josh Piagentini
Sound: Robert Berke Sound

Kerrigan Black
Michael Bell
Bernard Branner
Ben Callet
Gerald Davis
Kenneth R. Dixson
Larry Duckette
Darnell Stephens-Durio
Gideon Ferebee
Brian Freeman
Gene Garth
Essex Hemphill
A.J. Honey
Paul Horrey
David Hunter
Wayson Jones
David Barron Kirkland
Richard Medford
Cornelius Moore
Brian Navy
Willi ‘Ninja’
Michael Oatis
Bob Paris
Christopher Prince
Timothy Riena
Marlon T. Riggs
Ron Simmons
Taalib-Din Shakir
Robert D. Taylor
Britt Tennell
Arvid Williams

USA 1989
55 mins

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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