Speaking in Tongues
A pioneer queer doc finally gets the DVD treatment.
In the first two decades following the Stonewall Riots, migrants to San Francisco’s gay Castro District could seek a public camaraderie—that is, if they were white. In 1989, Marlon Riggs, an African-American U.C. Berkeley professor and experimental filmmaker, walked Castro Street feeling invisible and out of place. That experience inspired him to create the first documentary to both explore the lives of black gay men and garner national attention for doing so. Almost 20 years since the landmark film went into production, Tongues Untied is at last available on DVD.
Clocking in at 55 minutes (beefed up to 89 by the DVD’s deleted scenes and bonus extras), the film’s resurgence testifies to the rapid mainstreaming of queer culture. The idea that a black gay male subculture exists, and the subsequent notion that its members may participate in something so shocking as, say, an embrace, seems almost mundane in an era when gay marriage is on the table. But Tongues Untied’s in-your-face examination of the intersection of race and homophobia—as depicted by queer men of color cruising, donning drag and engaging in unadulterated self-expression—shattered the subculture’s long-kept community silence.
By the mid-’80s, Riggs already had dabbled in experimental filmmaking with Long Train Running, about jazz musicians in Oakland, and Ethnic Notions, an exploration of anti-black stereotypes in pop culture. On a trip to see his parents, a military couple then living in West Germany, acute kidney failure put Riggs in the hospital, where testing uncovered an HIV-positive diagnosis. Given the impending mortality that people living with the virus faced at the time, Riggs (who died of AIDS-related complications in 1994) at last had the impetus to muster up the funds and make a personal film about being black and gay in America.
“The film was done on such a shoestring,” says producer Brian Freeman, who met Riggs in a Bay Area support group called Black Gay Men United. “A lot of my work was researching and rounding up the performers. At the time, it was not easy to get people to appear in a black gay film.”
Freeman, who shows up as a background character in Tongues, says its experimental narrative form—the music-video style of editing, overlapping imagery and lyrical use of spoken word and rap—is rooted in the ways in which black gay men communicated. The film opens with a montage of urban street culture while a chorus of overlapping lips repeatedly chants the words “brother to brother.” (Riggs borrowed the phrase from a performance piece by poet Essex Hemphill.) Riggs himself appears as a lonely figure perpetually walking on (where else?) Castro Street. “For him to put the personal stuff in took a kind of beating down into his gut and ripping it out,” Freeman says.
In its initial release, the film played to a packed house of mostly friends and family at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater and, later, the Castro Theatre. But when PBS aired Tongues Untied two years later, it sparked a sensation and placed it in the crosshairs of decriers like Jesse Helms and Pat Buchanan; Helms attacked the film from the U.S. Senate floor, while Buchanan excerpted it in an anti–National Endowment for the Arts ad for his 1992 presidential campaign. Riggs was forced to set up guerilla screenings in cities where the film had been yanked from local stations.
Still, for one of the first times, white audiences had to consider LGBT people of color—people who, at the screenings, were finally finding each other. “For a predominantly black gay audience to sit together for the first time in [San Francisco’s] Castro Theatre, we were like, ‘Oh, right, here we are,’_” Freeman says.
As for the DVD features, interviews with black filmmakers, AIDS activists and spoken-word artists attempt to illustrate both the film’s immediate impact and its enduring influence. Sadly, it deprives us of Riggs, a trailblazer in the then-burgeoning genre of “new queer cinema.” A lone interview with him (clocking in at a mere 69 seconds) is admittedly slight.
But since Riggs knew he wouldn’t be around much longer to continue the dialogue surrounding gay men of color, it’s Tongues, in its entirety, that is his lasting gift.
Tongues Untied is available now.