Saturday, March 14, 2009

DVD of the Week: "Tongues Untied" (Marlon Riggs, 1989)

Sorry to everyone for this being a day late. Reviews of Miss March, Last House on the Left, Watchmen, and Hunger are in the works.


by Chuck Williamson

Tongues Untied, the 1989 video collaboration between media artist/queer activist Marlon Riggs and poet/essayist Essex Hemphill, has been burdened for too long by its legacy as a polemical culture war product. When it was first broadcast on public television, the documentary became the target of evangelical moralists and right-wing politicians—particularly Pat Buchanan, who used footage from the video in a presidential campaign ad accusing Bush of funding “pornographic art.” Thus, some might assume that Tongues Untied can only be appreciated as a timely polemic and historical footnote. However, the video defies such criticisms, as it represents both a moving and incisive mediation on the experiences of black gay men and a radical reinvention of the documentary form.

more after the break

As Riggs has stated, “Tongues Untied tries to undo the legacy of silence about Black Gay life.” Foregoing any traditional documentary approach, the video opts for a more experimental method. Blending spoken-word poetry, confessional interviews, and queer performance, Tongues Untied constructs its counter-discourses in response to the reductive, prejudiced view of black gay men, who are doubly-Othered and marginalized within both black and white culture. Through footage of dive bars, voguing balls, snap! performances, pride rallies, and on-the-street interviews, the video documents the cultural happenings of the black gay scene of the late eighties. But the video ultimately moves away from the limiting confines of an objective, journalistic discourse; instead, it fuses fact with fiction, personal testimonial with poetic recitation, on-the-street verite footage with experimental montage. Tongues Untied alternates between interviewed confessionals and prosaic poetry readings, documentary footage and staged homoerotic spectacle. These discursive strategies make the video’s explorations political and personal, thus adding to its urgency and poignancy. In its most powerful sequence, Marlon Riggs delivers a monologue that mixes poetic mediation with pained confession, as he speaks on the intersections of homophobia and racism, and the prejudices that exist within both black and white society. “Silence is my sword,” he says. “It cuts both ways—silence is the deadliest weapon.”

But Riggs’ voice is just one of many. Through the collaging of sound and image, spoken word and visual antecedent, the film transforms silence into a cacophonous roar—and it is a roar that includes many voices. In Tongues Untied, the experiences of black gay men cannot be viewed as singular or monologic, and the video demonstrates this by stitching together its various discourses into a polyphonic tangle that gives the viewer access to a broad spectrum of emotions and experiences.

Out-of-print for over a decade, Tongues Untied has finally been released on DVD by Frameline Pictures.

1 comment:

Jacob Shoaf said...

I love the Institute of Snapology or whatever it's called (it's been a few months since I've seen this).