Tongues Untied (1989)
Dir: Marlon Riggs
Cert: U • US: 55 min • Frameline • July 14, 1989
Tongues Untied (1989) by Marlon Riggs is an autobiographical performance piece, chronicling the filmmaker’s journey towards finding his identity as a black gay man in America. Reenactment, prose, poetry, song, dance, archival material, observation and first person narrative combine to position the viewer, as far as possible, into the subjective space and worldview of an African-American gay man. In opposition to the usual expository mode of documentary, which seems to speak from above, or outside a group, Riggs suggests that certain kinds of knowledge are only attainable through an identification with another’s subjective experience. This places the film comfortably within contemporary social movements in which minority groups challenged the dominant historical and social narratives through ‘speaking their own personal truth’. Indeed, the interplay between speech and silence forms the dominant theme of Tongues Untied, emphasising the power of language to condemn, to marginalize, to discount and on the other hand, to release, to liberate and to include.
Much of the film presents Riggs directly facing the camera in a mid shot, against a black background. The effect recalls a theatre stage, with Riggs the sole performer, addressing the viewer in first person prose. Here is Riggs stripped bare, revealing to us his innermost thoughts and feelings. From this position, the viewer is able to see (or at least imagine) social issues such as homophobia, AIDs and racism, from the inside. In one scene, Riggs recalls childhood homophobic taunts. The camera cuts rapidly from extreme close ups of mouths swearing insults, back to Riggs’ face, closing in on his pained eyes. Though he says nothing, we hear his poetic inner monologue, expressing the isolation and confusion he feels. Simultaneously, the insults are sped up and repeated, creating a cruel rhythmic song which seems to encircle both Riggs and ourselves. Thus the viewer become aware on an experiential level of the marginalizing effect of such taunts. These emotional scenes are intercut with lighter, humorous sequences, which offer a window into black gay ‘scenes’ and satirize common stereotypes. One sequence, ‘Snapthology’, appears as an entertaining instructional video on how to execute a successful finger snap, a form of haughty derision. The viewer cannot help but try the ‘snap’ and yet perceive the sequence’s sad implication; that this skill has developed as a form of defense against a hostile culture.
Beginning with the repeating words, ‘Brother to Brother’, Tongues Untied is threaded with narrative; prose, poetry, wordplay, rap, song, interpretive dance. Riggs reminds us that African-American musical and rhythmic skill has historically provided one of the few permitted forms of acceptance and inclusion for African Americans within a dominant white culture. Here he expressly reclaims this musical heritage for himself and his brothers within the gay African American community. Indeed Tongues Untied is a reflection of that very community, with Riggs’ friends participating in many of the sequences. Moreover, much of the narrative involves overlapping voices or multiple voices speaking in unison, indicating that the subjective space which the viewer is temporarily occupying is a shared space – the ‘I’ expressed is not Riggs alone, but is a group ‘I’. This group connection provides the backdrop for Rigg’s central realisation ; that once he was able to love other black men, he was able to love himself. Thus Tongues Untied culminates in a kind of political call to action, but not of the usual sort:
“Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act”. SNAP!