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Tongues Untied DVD
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2008-04-01

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'We are the lowest among the low. No one will save you but you.' Almost 20 years after this insightful assessment of the position of gay Black men in society was spoken in Marlon T. Riggs' controversial 1989 documentary Tongues Untied, the film is coming to DVD. 'Documentary' is a puny word, however, to describe Riggs' powerful movie. It's a potent combination of poetry and theatre, part history lesson, part polemic and a call to arms for Black gay men. In 55 short minutes Riggs exposes so many inbred cultural stereotypes it's like an explosion. Yet the anger of the film—an outraged, fed-up cry against racism and homophobia, a double whammy for gay Black men ( then and now ) —is suffused with Riggs' lyrical poetry of words, images and sounds. It's also sultry and erotic—deeply so.

To the poetic words of Riggs, Essex Hemphill and others who often address the camera, the film presents a series of vignettes that speak directly to the gay Black man's experience: a man refused entry to a gay bar because of his color; a college student left for dead after a vicious gay-bashing; a drag queen, proud and lonely walking the streets in full glory ( set to the music of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone ) ; the devastation of AIDS; and the overwhelming homophobia Black gays experience from their fellow African Americans. ( Clips from Eddie Murphy's concert movies are vivid examples of the latter. ) Much of the film is set, literally, to a thumping heartbeat—an aural reminder that the viewer is immersed in a vital, breathing subculture that thrives no matter how much the rest of the world tries to deny it.

To affirm that Riggs also presents joyful stories and images, we see Black men rallying at protest marches and at ACT-UP protests; offering voguing demonstrations ( featuring the late Willi Ninja and others from Paris Is Burning ) ; a gaggle of humorous 'snap' divas; and an a capella group unabashedly singing about love for another man. Though the anger is almost always just beneath the surface, these positive images and stories balance the film. 'Silence is my shield. It crushes. Silence is my cloak. It smothers,' one of the poets speaks at one point, beautifully describing this innate anger but, by the film's conclusion, the balance has shifted and Riggs ends the film with a message of hope: 'Now I speak and now my burden is lightened.' Sadly, Riggs, who died in 1994 of AIDS, didn't live to see a world that would embrace groundbreaking gay African-American projects like the indie film Brother to Brother, LOGO's Noah's Arc television series ( soon to be a motion picture ) and even the sassy British comedy Kinky Boots.

Tongues Untied first aired on PBS in July 1991 on P.O.V. and it's not hard to see why it caused such a fuss, given the era's public debate over arts funding for both queer artistic projects and anything that smacked of 'pornography.' ( Though the film contains brief nudity, it's far from that. ) Riggs defended his film in print and in an interview that accompanied the program. The latter is included as a special feature on the DVD, as are new interviews with filmmaker Isaac Julien, AIDS activist Phill Wilson, rap artist Juba Kalamka and cultural critic Herman Gray, who discuss the importance of the film. A smattering of deleted scenes are another bonus feature. From Frameline and Strand Releasing.


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