Tongues Untied

1989 | AIDS/HIV / Black/African American / Coming Out / Documentary / Race and Culture / Racism / Social Issues | 55m | USA
Directors: Marlon T. Riggs

The seminal documentary on Black gay life, Emmy Award-winning director Marlon T. Riggs’ 1989 Tongues Untied uses poetry, personal testimony, rap and performance (featuring poet Essex Hemphill and others), to describe the homophobia and racism that confront Black gay men.

The stories are fierce examples of homophobia and racism: the man refused entry to a gay bar because of his color; the college student left bleeding on the sidewalk after a gay-bashing; the loneliness and isolation of the drag queen. Yet they also affirm the black gay male experience: protest marches, smoky bars, “snap diva,” humorous “musicology” and Vogue dancers.

A quarter of a century after its release, director Marlon T. Riggs’ documentary, winner of the Los Angeles Film Critics Award, and Best Documentary prize at the Berlin Film Festival, is as relevant as ever.

“My struggle has allowed me to transcend that sense of shame and stigma identified with my being a black gay man. Having come through that fire, they can’t touch me.” — Marlon T. Riggs

Reviews and Awards

Best Independent/Experimental Work, L.A. Film Critics Award

First Prize, New Visions, San Francisco International Film Festival

First Prize, Experimental, National Educational Film & Video Festival

Best Black Independent Production, National Black Programming Consortium

Achievement Award, Big Muddy Film Fesetival

Best Video, Documentary Fesstiva, New York

Outstanding Merit Award, Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame

Honorable Mention, Black Maria Film Festival

Honorable Mention, Black American Cinema Society

New Works Premiere, American Film Institute of Video Festival

Video Viewpoints, Museum of Modern Art

Gay Lives ’89, San Francisco Film Arts Festival

Best Performance Video, Atlanta Film & Video Festival

Special Jury Award, USA Film Festival

Special Jury Award, Newark Black Filmmakers Festival

Maya Deren Award, American Film Institute

Blue Ribbon, American Film & Video Festival

Best Documentary, San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival

Best Gay Documentary, Berlin International Film Festival

“A black male warrior fighting for the right to love other black men, Marlon Riggs affirms what was nearly lost, newly found: the certainty that black male lives are utterly precious.” — Alice Walker

“Black Harvardite…gay…rejected by his southern peeps…struggling to find community…coming to SF and getting dissed in the Castro…attempting to confront racism in the gay community…conflicted around his identity issues and having them brought into sharp focus by his white lovers…you get the point. Watch it. You’ll see that you ain’t that different from the rest of us.” — Juba Kalamka (aka Pointfivefag), Deep Dickollective, Oakland, CA

“Pointed and vital…Propelled at times by a beautifully articulated anger, Tongues Untied becomes a compelling look at conditions faced by Black gay men.” — Peter Stack, San Francisco Chronicle

“Usually, politically and socially admirable films fall short of the mark in the aesthetics department. They are praised more for their good intentions…Marlon Riggs has created that rarest of birds—a brilliant, innovative work of art that delivers a knock-out political punch.” — Vito Russo, The Advocate

“A profoundly moving as well as educational experience, Tongues Untied is a superb vehicle that health professionals can use to stimulate discussion of Black gay men.” — Michael Shernoff, National Lesbian & Gay Health Foundation

“Tongues Untied stands alone as a model for placing sexuality in a contemporary social context. Nowhere else will you find a more complete dissection of the wholeness of the individual with this kind of haunting and eloquent truth.” — Jacquie Jones, Black Film Review

“Tongues Untied is one of the most significant documentaries of the past 30 years, and is ground-breaking on a number of fronts. Seventeen years after its initial release, the film is still unique in its often overwhelming performative power. It is an intensely personal and moving work that merits inclusion in any library collection interested in issues related to race, identity, and sexuality.” — Gary Handman, Director, UC Berkeley Media Resources Center.

“Marlon Riggs’ path breaking Tongues Untied is the beacon of black queer film making. Teachers and students interested in race, class, gender, sexuality, and HIV/AIDS must have Tongues Untied in their video library. This film’s meditation on what it means to be black and gay in America is candid, provocative, and original and speaks to the perseverance of the human spirit. We lost Riggs too soon, but his legacy lives on in this masterful film. I’m happy to see it released as a DVD. It’s long overdue.” — E. Patrick Johnson, Chair, Department of Performance Studies, Northwestern University

“Tongues Untied helps to unleash the speech of gays, lesbians, and queers in Psyc 261, Cultural Psychology, here at Wesleyan. It is a dynamic, moving film about resistance, revolution and love in times of oppression. I most strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to help their students find ways to speak about the pain and the joy in fighting sexual and racial oppression.” — Bob Steele, Professor of Psychology, Wesleyan University

“I was happy to get the new DVD edition of Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied. It’s wonderful that this classic of Black gay life will be seen by more students now that it is available on DVD. I applaud Frameline for converting it’s collection to digital.” — Daniel C. Tsang, Film and Media Studies Librarian (acting), UC Irvine

“We are using Tongues Untied and A Different Kind of Black Man in studies on behavioral intervention to reduce sexual risk and increase general healthy behaviors among African American men who have sex with men. These films are very valuable tools in getting men to talk about cultural issues and barriers such as HIV/Sex/Drugs, racism and homophobia, and are a great resource for programs we are evaluating.” — Nicole Martin, Howard Brown Health Center, Chicago

“Marlon Riggs groundbreaking film Tongues Untied was an important addition to our undergraduate queer theory course, ‘Queering the Terrain: Cultural Space and Queer Theory.’ The film was presented as part of a unit dealing with performance, queer subjectivities and community. Students loved Riggs’ courage in stepping in front of the camera, and were impressed by the film’s sustained currency. They were also quick to appreciate the film’s originality and its sharp articulation of black gay male experience as both subculture and counterpublic. Finally, they valued the opportunity to engage with the public frames of award-winning excellence and conservative controversy as a way to consider the terrains that activist art inevitably engages. We are all delighted to have this landmark film as part of the university’s permanent collection.” — Women’s and Gender Studies, University of Saskatchewan, Canada

“We recently purchased the new Tongues Untied DVD to replace our VHS copy. This copy was heavily used in so many different courses that the anticipation of more frequent use prompted our getting a second copy in DVD. Here is a list of some of the courses it has been used in: Theatre / AfrAmStudies: The Grain of the Black Image Rhetoric: African American Public Address & Lesbian and Gay Images in FilmArt & Visual Culture: Issues of Sexuality and the Study of Visual Culture First Year Seminar: Sex and Sexualities Politics 191: Western Political Theory” — Bates College, Lewiston, Maine

“Riggs’ Tongues Untied is an eloquent and groundbreaking exploration of the world of gay black men. Highly recommended for public and academic libraries especially for institutions with programs in gay and lesbian studies and gender studies.” — Patricia B. McGee, Coordinator of Media Services, Tennessee Technological University, for EMRO (Educational Media Reviews Online)