Tongues Untied (1989)
Wanda Sykes has to tackle the gay issue when she does her stand up and she does so in such a funny fashion. In one of her schticks, she mentions that it's hard for someone to be gay and black...she couldn't think of "coming out black". While there is a lot of humor to her point, it may not have been such a laughing matter just twenty years ago, when Marlon Riggs made "Tongues Untied".
Billed as a documentary, "Tongues Untied" should not be viewed as a work seeking to educate, rather as an experimental film that comes across as a collage of images and poetry to the audience. The film attempts to show the hell that gay, black men lived in circa late 1980s. When racism was still so prevalent, the gay movement that began in with the appearance of such figures as Harvey Milk in California ignited a world of controversy and community. Yet this was not the case for black men. When the media didn't want to show the faces, when they only survived long enough to get them to the next buzz, to the next elation (the film often shows a man walking down a street towards something else, as if his whole life is pointless), black men were shown for who they were in "Tongues Untied" which, if nothing else, is uncompromising.
Being made by a gay man, who himself is featured on the camera, "Tongues Untied" is a bit more than biased. It doesn't show the female perspective on the issues, nor does it try to show the reforms happening and the heterosexual people that fought for gay rights...it's an exclusive movie, dealing only with one sub-culture.
And at that it succeeds, once you get used to its odd style. It is so poetic and tries so hard to be so romantic in its longing, in its despair, in its intimacy; that sometimes it just feels amateurish. This is the same problem I had with the recent documentary "Bridegroom". While the film is emotionally powerful, perhaps the film makers tried too hard; but then again, how could they not? It's kind of a personal issue for all those involved...this is why "Tongues Untied" feels like a homemade movie about the troubles in the gay, black world. It also comes across as defensive, as though the world was caving in on these people...which it was.
At times ridiculous, at times mesmerizing, and at times just oddly pacifying, "Tongues Untied" is the biggest underground documentary that I can think of.
It takes the bangs and whistles of the underground movement in cinema and applies a main-stream narrative, or as close to one as you're likely to find in such movies.
Marlon Riggs and poet Essex Hemphill (who takes up most of the screen time) sometimes appear to be trying too hard. They recite their poetry for the camera and we get reconstructions of the words with visual images, some too blurred to make sense. "Tongues Untied" uses interviews, recreations, voice-over, and everything in between to make its point, driven hard to the viewer: black men can love black men.
In a world that felt ruled by the white male, even in the gay community (where images of the gay, black man rarely were seen and were comically stereotypical if they were) it takes the men of "Tongues Untied" even more courage to decide to be with one another.
They march for their right to love one another, they speak out on it, they show their complexity and their simpleness.
"Tongues Untied" is a lot to appreciate, it also takes a lot to appreciate it.
While I find the movie interesting enough and short enough to pass the time, personal enough to be moving, I can see why there are those who don't.
Posted by Micah Jones