Review by: Wik Wikholm
Reviewed on: February 01, 2011
Tongues Untied, a film that glbtq.com contributor Teresa Theophano characterizes as award-winning filmmaker Marlon Riggs' most famous, combines performance, poetry, dance, music, documentary film clips and even voguing to create a video mashup that expresses the hopes, fears, frustrations, and rage of African-American gay men during the 1980s. The film succeeds as both an energetic piece of video performance art and a hopeful manifesto.
The film captures the problems of identity and community that beset black gay men in the 1980s. San Francisco's Castro district and other gay ghettoes were largely populated by white gay men who, though frequent sexual partners of black men, rarely understood or even cared about the unique histories and experiences of African Americans. Many gay nightclubs' bouncers created barriers to admission for black men and black faces were rare in gay newspapers.
On the other hand, many blacks in Harlem saw African-American gay men as grown up "punks" and black preachers described homosexuality as an "abomination." In one scene in the film, a poet lists the groups in the black community that excluded black gay Americans: the black church, the black literati, the black left, the black press, and the black academicians. Riggs also singles out Eddie Murphy and other black comedians for deriding gay men. Poet Essex Hemphill decries the invisibility African-American homophobia forced on black gay men: "Silence is the deadliest weapon."
Riggs finds the absence of a sense of community and government inaction in addressing AIDS, which was rapidly killing large numbers of gay men, as the sources of one thing black gay men shared: rage.
Riggs finds hope in creating a community of black men who love black men and generate a culture of their own. Clips on voguing, snap, and several other distinctively gay African-American cultural forms of the time show that such a community and culture was emerging in the late 1980s. A clip that the film repeats several times features a group in a parade carrying a banner that reads: "Black Men Loving Black Men is a Revolutionary Act." The film ends with a slight, but poignant, variation: "Black Men Loving Black Men is THE Revolutionary Act."
The artistry of the film, which features readings by Essex Hemphill and several other poets as well as gay African-American dance, music, and performance pieces, delivers the film's message with visceral power.
While Tongues Untied is probably the most important film to address its subject, two other films complement it: Jennie Livingston's Paris is Burning (1990, 71 min., Miramax), an ethnographic documentary about black drag culture and voguing, and Riggs' own video/performance piece, Anthem (1990, 9 min., Frameline), which captures the mood among African-American gay men during the early 1990s, especially their fear of AIDS and their rage that the government was doing so little to help those infected.
Tongues Untied, Paris is Burning, and Anthem express the sentiments of black gay men in the late 1980s and early 1990s and depict black gay male culture and community during a unique and pivotal period in African-American gay history.