When Tongues Untied aired on Public Broadcasting stations in 1991, it unleashed a firestorm of controversy.
Its raw, revelatory look at the most intimate aspects of the lives of gay black men, and their struggles against homophobia and racism, was shocking to some.
Filmmaker Marlon Riggs observed that he created the documentary to “shatter this nation’s brutalizing silence on matters of race and sexual difference.”
Tongues Untied, which had received a $5,000 production grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, soon found itself at the center of America’s culture wars, which at that point pivoted around homosexuality, freedom of artistic expression, and public funding of the arts. Right-wing politician Patrick Buchanan, then running for president, attacked Riggs’ film by featuring it in an incendiary campaign ad. Archconservative senator Jesse Helms condemned the work from the floor of the Senate. Thirty percent of PBS stations across the country declined to air the film, concerned about its depiction of male nudity, men kissing, profanity, and racial and homophobic slurs.
Riggs, an out, openly HIV-positive 34-year-old artist, pushed back ferociously during the 1992 presidential campaign in a blistering opinion piece in the New York Times:
Needless to say, the insult in this brand of politics extends not just to blacks and gays, the majority of whom are taxpayers and would therefore seem entitled to some measure of representation in publicly financed art.
The insult confronts all who now witness and are profoundly outraged by the quality of political—one hesitates to say Presidential—debate. The vilest form of obscenity these days is in our nation’s leadership.
On Saturday, July 26, at 7:00 p.m., the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, will present a 30th-anniversary screening of Tongues Untied, followed by a panel discussion. The film is part of Q-Fest, Houston’s LGBTQ film festival, which runs July 26–28 at various venues.
So is a 30-year-old film that represents a very particular socio-political moment still relevant for audiences today?
According to two high-profile Houston activists, the answer is emphatically Yes.
“Marlon’s work is timeless and classic. And the world still has not caught up with him,” says Harrison Guy, co-chair of Mayor Turner’s LGBT Advisory Board and this year’s Male Grand Marshal for Houston’s annual Pride parade. “When I found Marlon’s work, I felt like I had come home. It centered me in a way that is difficult to put into words,” he remembers. “Ultimately, it taught me that there is a place for me to tell the truth and to bring all parts of me to the table.”
For activist Brandon Mack, Riggs is “a visionary, both as an activist and as an artist. His art is a form of activism that draws attention to the experiences of being a black gay/same-gender-loving man in America, and the uniqueness of the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality.
“Many of the same issues explored in the film are still prevalent within the LGBTQ+ community and society at large,” observes Mack. “We still face racism within the LGBTQ+ community. We still [struggle to] reconcile our membership in two marginalized populations: black and LGBTQ+. We still deal with the desire for connection in the face of a society that tells us that we shouldn’t exist.”
Riggs was born in Fort Worth in 1957 and grew up in Fort Worth, Georgia, and Germany. He recalled his time as a boy in Georgia as particularly difficult: “I was caught between these two worlds where the whites hated me and the blacks disparaged me. It was so painful.”
He won a full scholarship to Harvard, where he studied history. He then moved to the West Coast to pursue a graduate degree in journalism, focusing on documentary filmmaking at the University of California at Berkeley. It was there that he met his life partner, Jack Vincent.
His 1987 documentary Ethnic Notions examined the history of racial caricature and stereotypes in American life. It was broadcast nationally on PBS that same year, and won an Emmy Award.
Later, during a trip to Germany to visit his family, Riggs was hospitalized for kidney failure and tested HIV-positive. In 1990, his next film, Tongues Untied, was screened at the Berlin Film Festival with his mother, Jean, in attendance. He was too nervous to sit with her while she saw the film for the first time. She was indeed shaken and surprised by what she saw.
“To see the pain and suffering and the searching that he went through, it really hurt,” she later recalled. “It brought tears to my eyes, and I felt somewhat guilty. I said, ‘Why didn’t I recognize this? Why did I not know this?’”
Tongues Untied went on to win the Best Documentary Award at the Berlin Film Festival, as well as the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Best Independent/Experimental Film award.
In his home state of Texas, Houston Public Television declined to air Tongues Untied. In response, the Southwest Alternate Media Project approached the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, about organizing a screening so that the work could be seen in Houston. Peter Marzio, then the director of MFAH, agreed, and on August 1, 1991, the film played to a packed house. Immediately following the screening, Riggs called in to the museum and participated in a Q&A session with the audience by phone.
Riggs’ 1992 film Color Adjustment examined the representation of African-Americans in prime-time television, and went on to win a prestigious Peabody Award. That same year, he examined the stigma of having AIDS, and its impact on the black community, in the film No Regret. He died in 1994 of AIDS-related complications at the age of 37. His life and work continue to resonate 25 years later.
“As an activist, I believe his legacy is truth-telling, unfiltered and unapologetic,” says Harrison Guy. “As an artist, his legacy is a dynamic blend of creative disciplines with a conscience and a soul.”
“Tongues Untied reminds us that we come from a strong community of black gay men who laid a foundation for us to be who we are,” observes Brandon Mack. “And we need to continue that strong assertion of our identity [so that] the next generation continues to build up that foundation and build up our community.”
What: Tongues Untied screening and discussion
When: July 26, 7 p.m.
Where: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet St
This article appears in the July 2019 edition to OutSmart magazine.