• Chelsea Slack

Film Review: Tongues Untied

I feel I must start by stating that this was the most impactful essay film I have watched yet for this class. I literally cried at one point. Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied (1989) is a film that I found to be near and dear to my heart. One of my best friends is a gay man, and although he is not African-American, he has dealt with many of the issues addressed by the film. As the piece begins, we hear many voices speaking almost completely in unison, but not quite. When I was searching for films I could watch for free on the library databases (thanks Films on Demand), I accidentally typed “tongues united” rather than tongues untied. Realizing I had typed it incorrectly, I corrected my spelling and was able to find the full video. After clicking play, I immediately thought the title must be an intentional anagram, although “untied” is more fitting than “united.”

The film’s story is layered and complex, just as people are layered and complex – the men portrayed within the movie most certainly are. Clearly, the experience for black men who are gay is one of both passion and pudency – it was frustrating for me to watch, but I cannot even begin to think of what it must be like for these men. The scenes portraying the snaps, known as a sign of being “bitchy” or a “queen,” showed how the men use defense mechanisms to protect themselves from scrutiny. Remaining stoic in the face of constant contempt and contradictory treatment from whites, straight African-Americans and even gays who are not black seems impossible.

Riggs tells the story using unique techniques. He opens with multiple voices reciting spoken-word poetry and then moves to his personal experience as a black gay man in the South. He also cites the experiences of others while comparing the treatment he and others have been subjected to against treatment of minorities in general. Within another episode of layered voices, Riggs uses the voices of white people to say, “niggers go home” and other slurs to interplay with his own storytelling. His story is indeed an “individual” one, documenting his own personal experience, a purpose Rascaroli (2017) asserts essay films may serve. Use of more than one voice or voiceover is not uncommon; Language Gulf in the Shouting Valley is cited by Rascaroli as using two voiceovers, stating, “…together with linguistic meanings, they mobilize much anxiety, fear, desire, hope, and horror” (123).

The point that on the whole, as a society we should have moved past such unfair treatment is blatantly clear. Even though Tongues Untied was filmed in 1989, as a 21st century viewer, I know that we still have not risen above. Blatant, in fact, is a good word to describe the film and the stories it shares. Viewers learn the details of the black gay man experience, no holds barred. But, I think this is important for us as viewers, because without a complete picture, we could not fully appreciate the identities of these men.

Language, stories, and visuals throughout the film are fluid, in a way similar to the fluidity of identity. Around some people, Riggs is a certain person, either in the way he acts or the way he is perceived. In Georgia, as a kid he is called a “motherfucking coon,” by the rednecks but an “Uncle Tom” by the black kids. His behavior in both scenarios is that of shyness and silence. When he went to California, he becomes part of the gay community and is no longer silent. But, in many ways, he was perceived the same as in Georgia, stating, “In this great gay Mecca, I was an invisible man. I had no shadow, no substance, no place, no history, no reflection. I was an alien, unseen and seen, unwanted. Here, as in Hephzibah, I was a nigger still.”

Eades and Papazian (2017) say in “Cinéma-Vérité and Kino-Pravda: Rouch, Vertov and the Essay Form” that the essay film is in many ways like a diary. Cinéma-vérité seeks to “... open up the possibility of a new form of cinematic expression – as communication (transmission, language, conversation), as experience (a film not ‘played’, but ‘lived’; an experiment conducted by a group working together), and as a form of thinking and knowledge production (‘truth’) ((Eades and Papazian 2017, 90-91). Riggs’ film, I believe, exemplifies cinéma-vérité in that he uses not only his own story, but the stories, testimonies, and cameos of others to share truths so piercing that our senses as viewers are thoroughly jolted, but in a good way.

Tongues Untied is a movie that shows the world what may for some be an uncomfortable reality – the reality of life as an African-American gay man. Although Riggs’ vibrant imagery makes the stories he shares quite palpable, viewers are also left with a sense that we can never fully understand. Riggs himself even says that he had was, “I was blind to my brother's beauty, and now I see my own.” I think his process of invention in creating the film had to have helped him become even more keenly aware of that and those which he already knew. Riggs and his viewers are both changed by experiencing Tongues Untied. For Riggs, silence, a motif emphasized throughout the film, becomes silent no more. Maybe viewers, too, will abandon silence for activism and honesty. I know I will.


Arsenjuk, Luka. 2017. "To Speak, To Hold, To Live by the Image’: Notes in the Margins of the New Videographic Tendency." In The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia, 279. New York: Wallflower Press.

Eades, Caroline, and Elizabeth Papazian. 2017. "Cinéma-Vérité and Kino-Pravda: Rouch, Vertov and the Essay Form". In The Essay Film: Dialogue, Politics, Utopia, 90-91. New York: Wallflower Press.

Rascaroli, Laura. 2017. "The Politics of the Sonic Interstice and Dissonance of the Neutral". In How the Essay Film Thinks, 115-190. New York: Oxford University Press.

Riggs, Marlon. 1989. Tongues Untied. Film. USA: California New



© 2018 by Chelsea Slack