MR: This tape is partly about community-building. It's an affirmation of some of the things that we as black gay men take for granted. For example, lots of people snap. They snap on every syllable, and they don't think about it. You can go from Mississippi to California to New York and this cultural form will be recognized—there will be a response. Some people are ashamed about snap because they look at it and think, "Oh, we know he's a gay man." Yet, snap is also a form of resistance, a form of saying, "Yes, I'm different and I'm also proud of it." And there's that kind of resistance and affirmation throughout the tape—the vogueing, the dancing, the deliberately so-called-effeminate gestures in vogueing. You need a way to separate and deliberately distinguish yourself. You need somehow to affirm those gestures which the dominant culture looks down upon and considers inferior or reflecting a flawed personality or a flawed culture. We take that and reverse it in a way, so that it becomes a virtue rather than a vice or flaw.
Again, popular, black American dancing is so much a part of our culture, yet unfortunately some people are ashamed to dance within a public setting. "White folks will see us and will think, well, we're always happy, dancing darkies." But you have to look at it on your own terms, from your own standard and not continually from eyes of blue. Look through your own eyes and realize that that is a form of cultural resistance, community building and cultural affirmation. If you do that, then you dance as liberation. In the dance sequence that follows the vogueing sequence, after you've seen men vogueing singly, you see an entire group of men dancing in the park. It's very brief, but it's a very strong moment. What might seem like, oh yeah, black folks dancing, you've looked right at it and now you're seeing it not just as dancing but as resistance and as liberation. In the tape, it's become a way of finding your way back to community, when you might have been lost within competing notions of alienation either because you dance for whites, or you do or don't dance, or whatever. Now in a way it means finding your way back to your root, finding a way to an identity which is not just individually affirmed but culturally and socially affirmed.
CK: Another thing that I liked is the doo-wop singing in four-part harmony.
MR: I deliberately wanted to take the cultural forms that are part of the black community, that are very well-respected and well-loved, that in some ways are deemed classic cultural forms. It might be dancing or singing, here it's four part doo-wop harmony. (I actually had wanted to do rap, a black gay rap, as well, but I couldn't get that together. Maybe it'll come in the future.) My goal was to take those things which in some ways have become very much enshrined in traditional popular culture, black American popular culture, and infuse them with something just a little bit different. In this case, a black gay aspect. Viewers can be simultaneously hooked and repulsed: "Boy, can that child sing! He's talking about black men loving black men." I'm playing with such conflicted reactions throughout Tongues Untied. The marching, the civil rights protests interwoven with black gay men marching in gay rights marches, the black-gay-doo-wop love song. All of these things sort of snap, like the rhythm and rhyming of rap. We're talking about something that's in black gay expression. All the time I'm playing with traditional forms, yet altering them, perhaps innovating them because of this infusion of a black gay expression.
CK: Another thing I responded to very strongly because I see people actually having these experiences was the story on the bus where a man just totally dramatically takes over a public space and insists on his gay presence at the risk of bodily harm, if someone wants to go after him. These are kinds of incidents that the straight world does know about. Yet there's this way in which, rhetorically, when straights talk, they'll act as if they don't know anything about gay culture, or that they've never met gay people, or there're only "them" out there in the media or only those people in the Castro, or something like that. As if in their own community they've never had this experience.
I know you haven't had any chance to hear many reactions but it seems risky even admitting that children...
M: That children have sex?
CK: It's one of those things that people often don't want to hear or think about, even if they know it. Since it comes after the bus story, it seemed in a similar vein—things that people know about but often repress. Anyone who has ever raised a child or been a child knows that children have sexuality, yet culturally it gets obliterated. And people know that there are black gays but that gets obliterated, too.
M: It's strange, it never seemed like a risk. Perhaps it's a personal revelation, but it didn't seem such a big thing. At least in Fort Worth, Texas, as I was growing up, many friends talked about having sex at age six or seven or eight. You're not having, wow, adventurous sex, but you're experimenting. It is not that unusual in the black community, nor is it to admit what you liked. It was okay if you had sex with boys as long as you were the one on top, because then you were still a man or a boy. Only when the position was reversed were you like "cheap pussy," if you will. The term—to conquer the pussy—I obviously did not use in the tape. But these things were truths.
I decided that what I was going to deal with were in some ways explosive yet deeply repressed things in our community. Whether it was taking on the church, or taking on Eddie Murphy, or taking on child sexuality and child sex (children having sex, not just having sexual feelings but actually engaging in copulation). That would have to be done. It was either say nothing or go all out. I'd just have to take those risks and see how people react. I speak from within the black community, to which the tape is primarily directed; in the black community as well as in our society overall, there are things that we just don't deal with. We like to keep up a pretense that certain things aren't happening, certain knowledge is not known, certain behavior never occurs. Yet all of these things do go on. In this one area, I wanted to lift the lid and speak: "Yes, this happens. You can deal with it in a different way, but you will no longer deal with it by silence or deal with it by avoidance and oppression."
This acknowledgement is confrontational for some, I imagine, depending on where they're coming from. I haven't had that reaction yet, but the tape's been shown to sympathetic audiences. I will learn very shortly when we show it in a sociology class, which has a large latino and black population, not people who are particularly gay or progressive. We'll see how students react there. I know it will be very different and threatening.
CK: Would you say a little about the section with the transvestite walking by the lake and your choice of music.
MR: The Nina Simone and Billie Holliday sections follow my voyage of trying to find self-in-community within the Castro (San Francisco's so-called gay mecca) and not finding it. In fact, I found just the opposite, what I'd already known, racism, hatred and bigotry. It was much more nuanced, much more subtle than what I'd found in the south growing up, but very present and obvious to me. As a transition in the tape, I drop my story and do not follow a conventional narrative, which would be to indicate when I say I left the Castro in search of someplace better to show me someplace else. This confuses some viewers and I realize was a risk. The narrative line now moves into other stories, other identities which are much like my own. Not exactly, I've never been a drag queen, attracted to drag queens or dressed in drag as experimentation. Rather, I bridged this experience with my own, so that after you hear me saying, "I left the Castro obviously longing for something better," you hear a Billie Holliday song: "I don't know why, but I'm feeling so sad. I long to try something I never had. Lover man, where can you be?" If you follow this metaphor, the lover man is not just a lover to sleep with but also lover-man community, friends, fellows, fellowship—where can you be? The image is one many people would find repulsive, a street drag queen, obviously rough-looking, not someone elegantly dressed with fine coiffured hair and makeup. You have to look at the humanity within that person and see that the experience which moved by my telling my story now applies to this person. And it's just through her gestures, her look, her sitting there that I was hoping that this empathy would be communicated.
Part of this sequence is personal. I love Billie Holliday and Nina Simone. I grew up with these songs. To use them means bringing up stuff from my past. I played those songs over and over as a kid and listened to them as my parents played them. That's partly why my own Nina Simone album is so scratched but I don't care if it's not perfect sounding. At age ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, I felt so lonely. Listening to this music kept me thinking that there must be something better than this. In the tape I used those songs as personal reflections from my life, which would hopefully bridge this identity to these very different people. Transvestites are different from myself and very different from most people we're seeing. Lots of men, even gay men, are repulsed by drag queens, consider them inferior and look upon them as caricatures, not seeing anything beyond the surface. That means looking upon transvestites in the way the straight community looks upon black gays or all gay men. I used this music to try to overcome that distance, to make these people real and their grief, longing, and needs as respectable and noble and as sympathetically felt by an audience as what was understood from my own story.
The Nina Simone song was one I had always loved. I played over and over as a kid and teenager the way some people played Beatles' songs or the Fifth Dimension or the Temptations. I'd pick up the record and play it again and again: "Black is the color..." I'd listen to Simone's voice tremble, it'd get so soft and it was so filled with....I didn't know then why that song had such strong feeling and meaning for me. Now I look back and see obviously why. Her voice is androgynous and could almost play as a man's voice: "Black is the color of my true love's hair...his hands...his face"--it's obviously male gender here. That was before I knew I was gay and my response was not about a man talking about a woman. I had this sort of involuntary response to that song which really built up over the years.
I guess I'm very much like many gay men in that some women vocalists are the people whom I most admire and who speak what I feel. When I was looking for another copy it was tough to find that particular album. My parents have the original and theirs was too scratched up to use.
I came across Essex's poem, "A Homicide," about a very different experience, about a black drag queen being murdered. But I didn't interpret it in that way. When I looked at the line, "His grief is not apparel. It is a wig it does not rest gently on my head," or when he's talking about, "I look, I search the waterfronts for the man I love," those words have a very different meaning for me. They are about community, longing, need, love, the need for love and affirmation, and are not just about grief. In this sequence in the tape, the song, those words, and that image which I wanted to humanize for people worked.
CK: One interesting thing on the sound track is a heartbeat pattern. It provided an emotional tone through some of the things that were being said.
MR: It was a synthesized heartbeat, but a heartbeat. I knew that I'd eventually come to the line where I say on camera, "In search of self, I listen to the beat of my heart." The payoff was to keep on getting much further down. That's how I used the heartbeat—as I was doing with lots of the images and with audio in general. I wanted constantly to recontextualize things so they'd mean something different each time you hear them. The first time you hear the heartbeat is over the title sequence, where you see me in slow-mo. It played like a rhythm, an introduction; it was dramatic. There it was just an audio device, nothing more than a heartbeat. You don't know what it means, it's just emerging from something. The next time you hear it is where you see the Castro images, and then you're hearing it in relation to me in particular, so perhaps it's my heartbeat. Then you start hearing it in relation to others' heartbeats, in the wages-of-silence sequence where you hear all these homophobic statements. There it's heartbeat as anger, a pounding, everything held within, muffled, tense. It beats, "Boom-boom," while you're hearing all this screaming and shouting, "Faggot, nigger, queer." During all this invective, you're getting this constant beat. It's a device but it's also a way of evoking that tension you feel when everything is constrained. When you don't speak out, the tension is just sort of there, just about to break the surface, held and not quite let go, always just barely there. Later the heartbeat becomes salvation, particularly when you get the chant and anger vented. When the heartbeat comes through that, it becomes almost a resolution. So you are looking your heartbeat as a source of life and then eventually a source of death, since entwined with its ticking is the virus, a source of death. I wanted to play with that paradox.
The ending was difficult because I wanted the tape to have a positive, glowing release. You've gotten through all this, glowing and concluding, "Yes, we can be black and gay and proud." Yet I wanted to return people to the risks. The risks obviously are personal for me in a very direct sense, but the images and sounds also hit risks in a metaphoric sense. This is a struggle; there is paradox within this struggle; the heartbeat is life but the heartbeat can also be death. So I was playing with the heartbeat as a device. I don't know if viewers intellectually think of it like that. It's okay if they don't; they feel the increasingly important meaning of the beat throughout. As a device, it is not redundant, just added there to keep things moving along, but rather it functions integrally like the music and the poetry.
CK: It coalesces at one point where the line is, "I discovered a time bomb ticking in my blood." The beat which you've been hearing all along is an echo of that line, and then it's very inspiring. Right after that we get into the putting together of the black men in the gay rights demonstration with civil rights demonstrations.
MR: ...and all of my heroes from the history, the minihistory. Travel through the centuries of black American history in twenty seconds!
CK: At the end, Tongues Untied brings together a lot of things, moving them out towards public demonstration. Up to that point we'd been in public space, but now there's a much more dramatic and open public drama and call to action.
MR: Unsympathetic viewers probably tune out long before, but if they stay to that point, it could make a lot of nationalists upset. To take our heroes and mix them in with a black gay rights march is totally repugnant and contradictory. How can you consider Frederick Jackson, and Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth in the same breath as gay men all marching down the street bare-chested? Obviously it makes perfect sense to me; from my vantage point that montage was absolutely necessary. I had to move my experience out of just the personal realm and make it a communal and public experience. But we also need to bring personal struggle into the political, social and cultural struggle. It's not sufficient to wage war just with the demons within but also with the demons outside. Part of the battle has been going on a long time. You understand that this is not something new, but that you're part of the struggle's continuum. You can draw resources and strength from previous battles won as well as lost, so you understand better what needs to be done to continue in the future. That was really important for me to say—not to remain personal and poetic but also to be hard edged and muscular in clarifying the connection between civil-rights black American struggles for over three centuries and what we're doing now as black gay men.