Welcome to 70mm, The Geek Spectrum’s premier film and television criticism column. Every two weeks, 70mm will look at a film or television series and examine the imprint it has left on both queer cinema and the LGBTQA+ community as a whole. The entertainment may have been praised, maligned, or courted controversy at the time of its release; it may have been “good” or “bad”; or it may not have been discussed enough.
This week, we’ll be taking a look at Marlon Riggs’ 1989 documentary, Tongues Untied.
Prior to writing this, I noticed how similar some of my talking points were to a previous article posted here on Geek Spectrum, which discussed the troubling yet eye-opening whitewashing of history found in Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall. Indeed, it has become very common and “easy” for entertainment, be it television or film, to use white people as the representational “every-person,” facing “everyone’s” struggles, having goals and fears that “everyone” surely must be having, and being the ideal person that everyone could be in the long run… once they break out of their shell, that is.
But obviously, the struggles of white people are almost always going to differ from the struggles of people of color. The same thing especially goes for the struggles of gay white people compared to the struggles of gay people of color. And that difference could not be more obvious than when one watches Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied.
Largely consisting of dialogue, interpretative dance routines, spoken-word poetry, and small skits/re-enactments, the film and Riggs explores its main tagline, subtitle, and motto, “Black Men Loving Black Men,” with a balance that sits between grace and frankness. Watching the film for the first time several years ago, I was initially surprised by just how blunt it was with its portrayal of sexuality from the perspective of gay black men. There was never any imagery or dialogue that verged on levels of “pornography,” as H.W. Bush’s administration infamously accused the film of in regards to the grants the film received to fund it. The film, however, was not afraid to wear its gay identity on its sleeve, nor was it afraid to talk about it.
The film, centered mostly around Riggs’ and some of his friends recounting their experiences as black gay men, explores what is was like living in some of the most still-prominent-today gay neighborhoods, and struggling to live in a world that discriminates against people who are both gay and black. The first half of the film, in fact, largely focuses on the concept of self-love and acceptance. Riggs and co. deliver their experiences at calm, soothing volumes, the kind that would probably make one want to listen to them talk for hours. Of course, returning back to the point regarding this first half of the film, one has to remember that these experiences have a lot of hurt to them, and while one never sees or hears Riggs and co. break down or hear their voices crack, the careful selection of their words, mixed with the various news clippings and cinema verité footage, is enough to indicate that their journey of not just self-acceptance, but survival as well, is one of great pain.
Running parallel to this journey of not just self-love, but also Riggs and co. loving other black men in the gay community, is the action of staying silent through oppression, whether the oppression is vocal or physical. Riggs recounts experiences of facing discrimination in the form of both racism and homophobia. Truth be told, many of the experiences that the cast faced that are recorded in the film echo many experiences still faced by black people today. A spoken word poem cold opens the film, in which Riggs and his friends recount aggression at the hands of the police. Later during the film, Riggs specifically recounts his experiences living in the Castro, in which white gay men were held as the standard for beauty in the gay community. The narration of these experiences are heard parallel alongside hand-held footage of gay men, running and interacting carefree in the streets of the Castro, which are immediately followed by images of demeaning artwork of black gay men, depicting them either in submissive positions that resemble those that slaves were put in; or fetishized so that certain bodily features were completely exaggerated.
Riggs’ experiences as a black person who, in the eyes of the black community, should be stripped of his black identity due to the fact that he is also gay, is a real gut-wrencher, simply due to the fact that Riggs, along with many of his friends, have apparently always grown up being taught that to be a black man is to be both hyper masculine and heterosexual. Even Eddie Murphy makes a cameo in the form of spliced-in stand-up footage, delivering a routine that becomes depressing with each second, however short it is, due to his continued use of the f-slur.
It may seem like this discussion insinuates that only negative experiences and gloom permeates the documentary; especially considering that one of the film’s final sequences includes a montage of obituaries mourning the loss of several black gay activists, mostly to AIDS, and the fact that Riggs himself would succumb to the disease several years after the film’s release. But the film, through all the treading in the manure-infested lake of oppression and self-hate, there is a lot to look forward in being both gay and black. One of its most tender moments is its reenactment of two men feeling attracted to one another and taking this attraction to the level of consensual sex. Riggs maintains a word of caution to the viewer that as enjoyable as it might have been, there was still the possibility of anyone contracting HIV; however, it is reassuring to see a film embrace the joys of love and passion between two men.
The film’s last shot is even a short monologue, with Riggs declaring his pride in being both black and gay following such a lengthy period of hate from others and himself, before ending with the words, “Black Men loving Black Men is the revolutionary act.” The monologue, coupled with that intertitle, is indeed a powerful statement; such so that it would be a missed opportunity to not include it below.
I was blind to my brothers’ beauty and now I see my own… deaf to the voice that believed we were wanting, loving each other… now I hear. I was mute, tongue-tied, burdened by shadows and silence… now I speak, and my burden lightened. Lifted. Free.
It has become very common and “easy” for entertainment, be it television or film, to use white people as the representational “every-person,” including and especially in regards to LGBTQA+ struggles, and Riggs’ documentary shows why it is such a troublesome error to use only white people to speak for all struggles that members in the gay community face. All gay people face oppression; they still do today, albeit in more micro-aggressive manners, but Riggs shows why most of the time, queer people of colors’ struggles are steeped not just in homophobia, but also racism and dynamics relating to racial identity.
Next time: Ren takes a look at Todd Haynes’ classic-status-pending Carol.