Thursday, November 17, 2011

It Dares Speak Its Name

Film: Tongues Untied
Format: Internet video on laptop.

One thing I’ve learned in the nearly two years that I’ve done this site is that often you take films when, where, and how you can get them. If that means that the only way to watch something is a grainy version on the internet complete with Greek subtitles and interspersed with advertisements for Kashi cereal, well, that’s what I have to deal with. With Marlon Riggs’s Tongues Untied, that’s exactly what I had. Grainy footage, Greek subtitles, wonky sound, and Kashi and antiperspirant ads every five minutes. The crap I put up with…

And yet, this film was worth it. This is an hour of anger, rage, pain, pride, and power. I knew the very, very basics of this film going in—that it’s a documentary about gay black men—and really nothing else. And I didn’t expect the reality of this film.

The title of the film, Tongues Untied has a variety of meanings in the context of the film. It’s a chance in many ways for the men in this film, particularly the poet Essex Hemphill, to express the reality of their own lives. As black men, they feel denied a voice in American society. As gay men, they are equally denied a voice in the black community, which does not in general have a positive track record in dealing with gay issues. And so, these men are doubly denied the right to speak. It’s also an interesting play on the idea that homosexuality is the love that “dare not speak its name.”

The film is unabashedly and unashamedly sexual in its content and its delivery. I’ll admit that I was completely unprepared for the naked black men jumping around, flaccid penii a-flopping at the start of the film, and while this is a blatantly sexual segment of the film, it’s not in any way the most sexually charged moment.

Frankly, I’m pretty gobsmacked by this film. I’m neither black nor gay, and honestly didn’t think that I would find anything in this film that I would find much to latch onto. And yet I did. This is a film of real power simply because it is so openly sexual and open in its claim of power. Riggs and his film don’t ask for society—heterosexual and/or black society—to accept them, but instead proclaims its presence and demands not acceptance, not tolerance, but simple recognition. The film demands that its subjects be seen as men, as black men, and as people.

It’s a short film; it runs just under an hour. Much of it comes in the form of the poetry of the aforementioned Hemphill, whose words are powerful, sexual, and demanding. Much also comes from Riggs himself. There are also moments of humor here—the group of men offering and participating in a class on Snap!thology, learning how to best snap their fingers for effect is fun and charming.

But there’s some real eye-opening issues here. Riggs includes snippets from black preachers railing against the gay community, condemning all gay men. He also includes pieces of Eddie Murphy performances that bash the gay community in general and gay men in the specific. There’s an undercurrent of awfulness here. There is a sense that these men have been marginalized in the black community in many ways because the black community itself has been marginalized. These men become outcasts and scapegoats because it is a way for those already cast down by society to see and ridicule and hate something even further below them—those experiencing prejudice for one thing expressing their superiority over those who experience it for two. Riggs never comments directly on this, allowing instead the poetry, the faces of the men in the film, and his film itself to respond for him.

I really didn’t know what to think going into this film, and I wasn’t really prepared for it in all the ways I should have been. But really that doesn’t matter. This film is raw and open and angry, and works not despite this, but because of it.

If nothing else, I understand fully why it ended up on The List.

Why to watch Tongues Untied: It’s extremely powerful.
Why not to watch: You may not be prepared for this film.


  1. I know what you mean about watching them when you can get them. I made a list (around 25 movies) of all the short films (under 70 minutes) on the List I hadn't seen and after almost two years, I had seen all but three of them. I decided to make the rounds to see if any of them had popped up and I found The War Game on Vimeo and watched it immediately. And then I checked YouTube and found that Tongues Untied was added in January 2018! And I watched the next night.

    The only short film I have left is Bruce Conner's Report.

    I found Tongues Untied to be very powerful and very compelling, once I got over my unpreparedness for the subject matter. (Sometimes I watch these List movies without knowing much about them.) I especially liked the poetry.

    1. Yeah, it sounds like you had the same sort of experience I did. There's a power here that is a little surprising if you aren't ready for it. I don't think it's the subject matter--I think it's the time in which it was made combined with the subject matter.