Remembering ‘Tongues Untied’

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Yance Ford, POV’s series producer, muses on Tongues Untied, a landmark POV film — and one of the most controversial. The film has just been released on DVD by Strand Releasing.
POV series producer Yance Ford
Brother to Brother. Brother to Brother.
Brother to Brother. Brother to Brother.

Five men recite this phrase in staccato rhythm during the hypnotic opening of the film Tongues Untied (POV 1991) by Marlon Riggs, which is being released this week on DVD. I watched the film for the umpteenth time as I prepared to write this post and found myself nostalgic (again) for the days when black men of all orientations addressed each other as “brother” — rather than “nigger” or “nigga” — or however you spell it. Riggs ends the film with the statement “Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act.” He was right then and he remains so. But I digress.
Tongues Untied by Marlon Riggs is now available on DVD

If, on July 16th, 1991, you were living in a market where your local PBS station hadn’t refused to air the program, you would have witnessed what is still the most sage analysis of blackness, gay identity and racism ever captured on film. Tongues Untied aired during the vitriolic culture wars of the 90s (as opposed to the Internet-fuelled semi-polite culture wars of the new century) and quickly became the whipping boy of the late Senator Jesse Helms. Helms infamously called the film “Tongues United” while ranting against it, PBS, the NEA and homosexuals from the Senate floor.

Riggs never backed down from these and the many other attacks he faced, and defended not only his right to make his work and have it aired on PBS, but to have the tax dollars of gay Americans (no pun intended) considered in the discussion of what deserves public funding. A month after the broadcast, Riggs wrote in Current Magazine:

Paradoxically, the Tongues Untied censorship hysteria has helped re-kindle an essential public debate: who is to have access to so-called “public” media and on what terms? Who should represent “minority” perspectives and experience? Above all, who has the authority to draw the thin line between innocuous “diversity” and unacceptable “deviance”?

Sixteen years and two wars later, we still haven’t answered these questions, and Riggs’ landmark film remains a relevant as ever.

Riggs’ essay for Current can be read in its entirety here. The dvd is available at Strand Releasing. It’s also part of the POV 20th Anniversary Collection.

Yance Ford
Yance Ford
Yance works closely with POV's executive director and programming director to evaluate films submitted to POV She is instrumental in curating the series, a showcase of acclaimed documentary film on PBS. Yance frequently represents POV | American Documentary at conferences, festivals and markets, procuring work from filmmakers both nationally and internationally. Yance also oversees POV's annual call for entries, which yields upwards of one thousand entries, and coordinates POV's annual programming advisory board. Yance is a Programming Consultant and Pre- Screener for film festivals around the country, including the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, the Black Maria Film Festival, the Newport International Film Festival, Latino Public Broadcasting, Creative Capital and the Sundance Film Festival. She has served on festival juries at Full Frame and Silverdocs, appeared on panels at Sunny Side of the Doc and DocuClub and served on the IFP Advisory Committee. A graduate of Hamilton College and the production workshop at Third World Newsreel, Yance is a former Production Stage Manager for the Girls Choir of Harlem and has worked as a Production Manager on numerous independent productions for the Discovery Health and History channels. Ford has also worked in various capacities on the documentaries The Favorite Poem Project, Juanita Anderson, Executive Producer, Brian Lanker's They Drew Fire (PBS), and Barry Levinson's Yesterday's Tomorrows (Showtime). Yance's favorite documentaries include: 1. Hands on a Hard Body 2. Tongues Untied 3. Harlan County, USA 4. Cul de Sac 5. When We Were Kings 6. The Thin Blue Line 7. Night and Fog
  • Steve Gorelick

    FOREIGNID: 15443
    There are so many reasons this film was a revelation, so many ways Marlon Riggs revealed his genius, but I always seem to settle on one:
    Everyone remembers all the screaming and shouting of the extreme right and the trotting out of the old script of grievances that I think has been used without edits ever since Clark Gable tore down the sheet and jumped into bed with Claudette Colbert in “It Happened One Night.” The family is in danger. Values are crumbling. Children will imitate this immorality. And on and on.
    But as a straight white man, I remember watching “Tongues Untied” and having a different reaction. Uh, oh. I know these crazed guys just well enough to see that they are going to hate this film, they are going to make life for PBS and POV miserable, they are going to use the old family values trope, and they are going to claim that my kids and my family will be ruined.
    But that won’t be what’s really eating at them.
    Because the moment the credits rolled on that remarkable film, I saw that – on a deeper level — decades of finely crafted and politically useful narrative – in which the African American man had played the role of criminal and savage and threat to “our women” – had just been deliciously subverted by opening a door on a culture that turned that nonsense it on its head. These were proud and loving and fiercely sexual African American men who cared about each other; who not only were not after “our women” but who shared their intimacy and passion with each other.
    This may be a reach, but I always thought that this subverting of the narrative of the African American male as sexual predator, this rejection of the idea that “our women” were in danger, was the more fundamental threat raised by “Tongues Untied.”
    It’s bad enough when your artistic vision debunks a cherished hero. But when you take away someone’s folk-devil, someone’s object of hate, you rip away something even more cherished – the whole structure of folklore and urban legend that has enabled the feverish solidarity of despising someone or something.
    In his own way, Marlon Riggs ruined the over 200 year-old celebratory “cross-burning” party that had situated the black man as our worst nightmare. In the confused ideology that is hate and racism and homophobia, not wanting to violate “our women” was almost worse than wanting to violate them.

  • Yance

    FOREIGNID: 15444
    Thanks for writing Steve. While I agree with your comments I think you miss an important part of the analysis. Tongues was revolutionary not simply because it focused black male desire away from white women. Tongues was a revolution because it was about black men desiring other black men. His insistence on representing himself and his community as thinking feeling, and yes, sexual beings blew the lid off of straight communities be they white or black. Riggs’ refused to take the sex out of homosexuality. The response to his work proved, then and now that ‘black men loving black men is the revolutionary act.’

  • Steve Gorelick

    FOREIGNID: 15445
    I really couldn’t agree more with you, Yance. My post was not about Marlon’s revolutionary and proud take on black male desire, which was its real revelation, but the unholy mis-readings that might explain the hate and vehemmence with which it was received by the reactionary politicians who went bonkers.
    I think you are on the money about what the work itself was about.
    I love this blog and look forward to reading it frequently and calling it to the attention of others.

  • David

    FOREIGNID: 15446
    This movie, as much as any other and more than most, changed my life. I saw it during my first year at Hampshire College and, though I didn’t fully understand much, if any, of the culture wars raging in the background, I DID understand the personal storytelling, the bravery and the exceptional filmmaking involved.
    Thanks for reminding me of all this, Yance.