With film comes opinions, and with opinions come controversy. This often is a reality when it comes to documentary filmmaking, because one person’s perspective on reality may differ from another’s. With this being said, certain social issues crave the needed attention society is choosing not to provide, such as the neglect of LGBTQ issues present within the black community, brought to attention by documentary filmmaker and poet, Marlon Riggs in his 1989 film Tongues Untied, leading to quite the fuss. As Tongues Untied is a film with alarming and unconventionally graphic commentary and visuals, it is no surprise that fuming right-wing conservatives had something to say (Petty 416). Due to the fact that sensitive issues such as these have not quite been publically discussed as thoroughly and unapologetically before, an uproar ensued. Because of this, consciousness of blackness in the LGBTQ community began to creep into the limelight. Documentary filmmaking has the power to bring normally quieted social issues to light with the use of vivid imagery of real life events and emotional intent, birthing a strong reaction and increased awareness.
“I was mute, tongue tied by shadows and silence. Now I speak, and my burden is lightened, lifted, free,” Riggs says himself in a particularly dark yet liberating scene in Tongues Untied. In this long take we see the director himself, standing in front of a black backdrop. There is no music. The only things present to stimulate the audience are Riggs’ face and voice, his eyes hyperfocusing into the camera making eye contact with his audience, the very people he is expressing his struggles to. The scene starts as a close up, slowly zooming into an extreme close up shot, emphasizing every feature and expression present on Riggs’ face. His words are haunting, and his face matches that, giving birth to a scene filled with emotion and pain. An audience connects with a scene so pure and real. Just a man, his camera, and a message, no special effects or elaborate editing are necessary. With scenes like this, which are present throughout the film, emotion exudes through poetry, as gay, black men express their anger, fear, and obligated silence they have endured in their lives. Riggs’ film acts as a rebirth, a new age. “Tongues Untied is truly a breakthrough documentary, for it penetrated ‘the walls of silence by which oppressive norms and taboos erase any ‘evidence of being’ among black lesbians and gay men’ (Mercer 22)” (Petty 417). The way in which Riggs “penetrated the walls of silence” was shocking to many, as the neglect of gayness and blackness was revealed in an explicit way. Extreme close up shots of the mouths of both white and black men spewing unsettling profanities targeting the gay and black community flash in-between scenes of gay, black men illustrating their stories of pain through poetry. The audience sees these obvious villains’ faces uncomfortably close to the camera, their eyes hidden as if to give them an inhuman quality. Strong editing is what makes these scenes so profound; the audience listens to the exquisitely real poetry while scenes of pure hatred are inserted aggressively and surprisingly, interrupting their stories just as this hate had interrupted their lives. In some of these intimate scenes, the men are not saying anything; the audience sees their facial expressions exuding hurt, while the only thing audible is evil. “We need strong black men,” and “I don’t want them around me or my kids,” are just some of the sayings that echo in the background, as if to mimic how this hate has echoed in their lives, producing a sort of meta, or self-referential moment.
Although Riggs’ message is arguably clear, people still focused on the shock factor of the explicit nature of the content rather than the shock factor of the negative experiences of gay, black men. During Pat Buchanan’s 1992 election campaign, he had accused President Bush of using taxpayers’ money to pay for “pornographic art,” referring to a scene in Tongues Untied. But what was interesting about this situation was that the clip mentioned portrayed nudity of white men, the original controversy having nothing to do with the meaning behind the entire film (Petty 416). This only emphasizes Riggs’ point; LGBTQ struggles and neglect in the black community are brought to the public eye. Although it is necessary for the content to be understood in regards to the social issues that are attempted to be exposed, the focus of male whiteness makes Riggs’ message that more important. He speaks about how at one point in his life he craved being with white men, as they were the only “flavor” that interested him. If a black man looked his way he would not pay him any attention, without even a question as to why he was this way. As he talks about this saddening fact of internalized neglect of diversity and his own race, images of only white porn stars flash on the screen, not a black man in sight, making the audience understand why Riggs was so drawn to them. As the audience listens and watches, they get a glimpse of just how hidden gay, black men truly were in the media during this time, which led to a form of internalized racism and self hatred. Soon the audience sees eerily racist images of black men in porn, many suggestive of slavery, it being obvious that there were no positive black idols of sexuality for these men to relate to. Riggs begins to describe himself as invisible, an alien unseen, and even calls himself racist slurs. As he is narrating this, a wide shot image of himself walking alone on the sidewalk in public midday slowly fades away, as to literally illustrate how invisible he feels. Editing choices such as these truly cater to the emotional aspect of the film. “Thus, Riggs’ own experience, and those of black poets, becomes universalized as metaphorical constructs of black gay identities. This leads to a proliferation of voices and gives the video its sense of polyphony,” (Petty 418). The way the visuals and the audio are married to each other gives the film a sort of musical vibe, the use of poetry creating lyrical hints throughout (Petty 418). Often the audio and the visuals are connected in clever way, the visuals acting as a metaphor for the poetry, the poetry that is so rich in feeling and despair.
Although much of the documentary is oozing with pain and deeply ingrained feelings of being outcast, there are plenty of scenes, which offer comic relief, as to balance out shame and pride that is felt within the gay black community. In a scene exhibiting gay, black men sassily snapping their fingers at each other, one man proclaims, “Don’t mess with a snap diva!” This scene is very much staged, as these men give a lesson to the audience on different kinds of snapping via a “grand diva rap.” The audience is first introduced to snapping through a wide shot of a group of men, then jump cuts to medium shots of individual men educating the audience on different types of snaps, such as the “Point Snap!,” the “Mini-Snap!,” and the “Classic Snap!.” There are titles written on the screen specifying the different snaps as well as a message saying “courtesy of The Institute of Snap!thology.” The construction of the visuals along with the audio of a jazzy sounding bass let the audience assume it is okay to laugh a little, as this scene is not taking itself so seriously. Part of the successful impact of Tongues Untied relates to its ability to be able to covey a message involving pain, politics, emotion, and history while still keeping some scenes lightweight. Since not all people can relate directly to the subject of the documentary, it is important for people to be able to relate to some aspects of the film, which is why the comedy interlaced between the serious poetry and imagery just works. In this scene, these men are portrayed as free and confident, as they are the only people present within the scene. There are no flashing images of racist or homophobic figures in between the shots of the gay, black protagonists, nor are there echoing slurs aggressively dominating and belittling their free nature. While this scene of snapping variety may serve as comic relief, Riggs finds ways to construct a lighthearted scene still rich in emotional and political intent. Some of the more politically charged scenes show detailed images with upfront themes of racism, homophobia, and neglect, such as imagery of black pornography possessing blatant intent of slavery performing as a fetish. “The Snap! Can be as emotionally and politically charged as a clenched fist; can punctuate debate and dialogue like an exclamation point, a comma, an ellipsis; or can altogether negate the need for words among those who are adept at decoding its nuanced meanings (“Black Macho” 392),” (Petty 420). Although these Snap! divas may come across as sassy and comical, them and the snaps themselves represent a symbol of rebellion and opposition to the society and the system that has quieted their confidence and their pride. Other scenes show these men “voguing,” a form of dancing, in groups, completely letting go of insecurities and fear. These groups, in some cases called “houses,” often in drag culture, celebrate their bodies, acting flamboyantly and expressing themselves with every part of their body. Riggs took these scenes, often wide shots, of liberation and slowed them down, distorting the movement of their bodies, as to appreciate the freedom felt by these houses. Marcos Becquer describes voguing as a way to appropriate the dominant popular culture while also incorporating “African diasporic practices and gay-identified attitudes,” (Petty 425). Riggs’ use of voguing in his documentary emphasizes his urge for acceptance and awareness of gay, blackness within mainstream society, as voguing represents a concoction dominant culture, African culture, and gay culture. His sluggish and exaggerated portrayal of voguing, emphasizing the movement of every limb, is perhaps a proposal for mainstream society to appreciate the beauty and elegance the gay, black community contributes. Riggs uses dominant popular culture in a more direct way to illustrate the neglect of gay, black men by inserting clips of famous, black stand-up comedians expressing hatred for the community through homophobic jokes. Clips from the likes of Eddie Murphy and Spike Lee’s School Daze (1988) are inserted back to back, as to have an ongoing list of black influencers in pop culture who use homophobia as a casual tool for entertainment. Eddie Murphy talks about how while performing on stage he has to keep pacing back and forth so the “faggots” will not be able to get a great look at his bottom. The crowd erupted in laughter, seemingly okay with, possibly even delighted by, the homophobic joke. The montage of clips also includes visuals portraying violence against gay, black men. Essentially Riggs gathered evidence of black men spewing hatred towards gay, black men, possibly suggesting a correlation between violence and how the mainstream media represents gay, black people (Petty 423). The fast paced clips, one after another, really create an obvious point of view, Riggs showing the audience what they might not have noticed before. Not everyone will be able to relate to Riggs’ personal struggles, so he decided to send a message through what a large amount of people would be able to relate to. Riggs wants people to wake up, and really absorb the content that they are force-fed every day, and make them question how this treatment could be okay.
Riggs’ efforts did not go unnoticed, the controversy finally opening up a discussion. Riggs was able to create a revolutionary piece of gay, black content, changing the typical boundaries of documentary filmmaking. He had extended the limits of documentary filmmaking set by his predecessors, such as William Greaves, St. Clair Bourne, Henry Hampton, Louis Massiah, and Carroll Parrot Blue (Petty 417). There are even questions as to whether or not Tongues Untied is truly documentary, as rather, it can be considered a “mediation” of the lives of gay, black men. In Tongues Untied, Riggs decided to use performance as a way to document reality, whereas his previous film, Ethnic Notions, included traditional interview scenes, making for a more conventional film. Tongues Untied throws conventional structure in the garbage, as Riggs is not only the director, but a performer as well. The emotional intent and dedication to breaking a pattern of silence, as well as breaking the traditional mold of documentary filmmaking, could be the push that got this film to be recognized and talked about. This film is unapologetic self-expression at its finest, Riggs injecting his own reflections on serious topics such as childhood sexuality, the fact that he is HIV-positive, and racism. However, many men in the film reveal their own life journeys, making the film factual like a traditional documentary and distancing itself from an autobiographical piece (Harper 71).
Documentary filmmaking can captivate audiences enough to create open discussions about normally quieted social issues with the use of stimulating visuals and emotional themes, birthing a viral reaction and increased awareness. Marlon Riggs’ ability to break the mold in documentary filmmaking caused people to open their eyes and ears, and whether or not they were positively captivated by his shameless revolt, people woke up. His surprising use of nudity, blatant exposure of racially offensive and homophobic language, personal tragedy, and artistic vision led to an impactful piece. I believe that shock value is not always authentic, but in this case I think Riggs used shock value in a meaningful and necessary way, as to say he is no longer fearful; he is angry and proactive. I am astonished by Riggs’ courage to not only break the silence and challenge the mainstream media’s portrayal of gay, black men, but also his courage to reinvent what documentary filmmaking is.
Harper, Phillip Brian. “Marlon Riggs: The Subjective Position of Documentary Film.” Art Journal 54.4 (1995): 69-72. Web.
Petty, Sheila. “Silence and Its Opposite: Expressions of Race in Tongues Untied.” Documenting the Documentary, Grant & Sloniowski, eds. Wayne State Press, 1998.
Riggs, Marlon T. “Notes of a Signifyin’ Snap! Queen.” Art Journal 50.3 (1991): 60. Web.
Tongues Untied, Marlon Riggs (1989)