Despite the recent success of Noah's Arc as one of the defining cultural zeitgeists of black gay culture, it may seem difficult to remember the years when black gay men were viewed as marginal and exotic creatures—seen on the streets but never humanized, and, almost never realistically depicted in movies or on television. Film maker Marlon T. Riggs changed the barren landscape with his classic and controversial documentary Tongues Untied. After almost 20 years, Tongues Untied will be released on DVD on March 18.
The documentary by the Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning director was a groundbreaking portrayal of black gay issues—discrimination and bigotry within the black community, racism in the "mainstream" gay community, HIV/AIDS, the art of the "snap queen", and, the loneliness and isolation of the drag queen. Riggs began production in Oakland, Washington DC and New York City with a $5,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Tongues Untied made its broadcast debut in 1991 on PBS' P.O.V. series, and, along with the furor over artist Robert Mapplethorpe, contributed to the growing debate over the public funding of the arts. The nudity, graphic descriptions of sexuality and revolutionary political ideology infuriated conservatives—NEA Chairman Lynne Cheney promised to review funding procedures and right-wing quasi-racist Sen. Jesse Helms led the charge against the broadcast.
It would be simplistic to dismiss the film by focusing on the contemporary—such as saying that today openly black gay men are advising Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, directing movies, and, writing New York Times bestsellers. True. Unfortunately, none of this was the case in 1991 and Tongues Untied was a call to action, and, paved the way for the next generation of black gay activism. The film holds up relatively well and the stories about the black church, religious intolerance, violent gay bashing, and, the debate over "butch versus femme" are still major topics of discussion in our community.
The remastered DVD from Frameline, the LGBT independent film distributor, includes deleted scenes, archival behind-the-scenes footage of Marlon T. Riggs, and, interviews with Rod 2.0 faves such as Isaac Julien and Phill Wilson. Riggs died of AIDS in 1994. Not only would Riggs be proud of the remastered DVD edition of Tongues Untied, but, he would appreciate the fact that the fierce cultural debate is still raging.
DVD GIVEAWAY: Frameline,, is offering limited copies of Tongues Untied exclusively to Rod 2.0 readers. Let's do something for the "children" who came out in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. In the comments below, describe where you first saw Tongues Untied and what impact it made. Was it on television? An art movie house? They are probably some great stories. Comments close Friday at 5PM ET and we'll announce the winners on Monday.
Tongues Untied [Frameline]