The talking heads and illustrative cutaways style is significantly changed in a key section. One of the two nonacademic experts, choreographer Leni Sloan, makes several key points. First in interview, he discusses the origins of blackface minstrels first in the development of a unique African American dance style of shuffling and jumping which was an evasive accommodation to religious law which prohibited dancing which involved crossing the feet. In the 1820s a white entertainer who played as a black, T.D. Rice, mimicked a crippled black man dancing: a portrayal that became Jim Crow in minstrelsy. Sloan points out the complications of this historical evolution and its further elaboration when black performers were allowed on the minstrel stage but in blackface and with adopted Irish names. He then portrays in one-man show style, Bert Williams, the greatest African American blackface comedian who achieved star status and financial success on Broadway but who, the character tells us, couldn't get a drink in a neighborhood bar.
The effect of Sloan's presentation of Williams is remarkable within the tape because it brings the issues down to a first person narrative told directly to the camera, which accelerates an empathetic response. Sloan appears again, in the last shot in the film to say that when blacks are presented as only singing, dancing, and clowning to the exclusion of other aspects of their lives that popular culture imagery becomes racist. Sloan is the strongest of the authorities because he seems to speak with a fuller sense of contradiction, to speak from experience, from being "inside" the problem of artistic representation, while the other authorities speak from a distance.
At another point, near the end of the tape, a complex formal arrangement makes a powerful statement. Ethel Waters is seen and heard singing "Darkies Never Dream," a song that continues the pattern of docile mammies who only exist to serve whites. Intercut with her presentation is the sound and image of Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. The contrast of audio/visual elements makes a political statement and also presents the fundamental contradiction between white-dominated popular culture images and black-articulated political aspirations using distinctly video graphic means.
To sum up, Ethnic Notions is a remarkably effective educational tape in addressing its most specific area of concern, and its formal construction and use of the PBS style is part of that effectiveness. At the same time, definite limits to the analysis appear within the piece. In his next major video, Tongues Untied, Riggs found an expanded form for addressing complex contradictions.
Tongues Untied: the passion at the margins
Tongues Untied is perhaps best defined as an experimental essay or an editorial opinion tape. It explains the various situations of black gay men, and addresses that audience directly, sounding a call to action, to no longer be silent, to band together, to speak out, and to organize in their self-interest. For viewers who are not African American homosexual men, the tape permits an experience of directly hearing and seeing their concerns. And its power for this secondary set of viewers distinctly derives from the use of first person expression. Rather than assuming the dispassionate stance of a mainstreaming format, Tongues Untied makes its case directly by speaking of the pain and the pride of being black and gay. The tape's goal is to celebrate "Black men loving black men." To do this, it uses a variety of forms which are native to black culture and especially to black gay culture. For its primary audience the tape provides the pleasure of recognition, but for its secondary audience it provides a series of lessons about cultural context and political expression.
Tongues Untied begins with an incantation as several voices repeatedly chant, "Brother to brother." Fading up from a black screen, we see slow motion images of groups of black men in public spaces such as basketball courts. The slow motion makes their casual glances at each other and gestures of touching and high fiving more significant than usual. But these images juxtaposed against the voice track make it clear that the male bonding depicted also covers black men's immense experience of anger and hurt in U.S. culture. A voice over narrator tells us, in meeting other black gay men:
"I am more likely to muse about my latest piece or so-and-so's party at Club Chi-chi than about the anger and hurt I felt that morning when a jeweler refused me entrance to his store because I am black and male and we are all perceived as thieves. I will swallow that hurt and should I speak of it will vocalize only the anger and say 'I should have bust out his windows'..."
The images here change from extreme close ups of men's faces to TV news footage of the summer '89 Virginia Beach incidents where black fraternity men in the resort community were beaten by aggressive cops and broke store windows in turn. The voices multiply, and intertitles make more connections about black men's shared rage: Howard Beach; Virginia Beach; Yusef Murder, CRACK; AIDS; BLACK MEN; Endangered Species?
Silence is a way to grin and bear the burden. By starting with the experience and pain of silence, Riggs speaks to a pervasive experience of African American people in the U.S.: men, women, children, straight and gay. Knowing that some form of punishment, retaliation, and humiliation is the likely response for speaking out against oppression and injustice, blacks learn early on to be silent for self-protection. As Paul Laurence Dunbar put it in a classic poem,
"We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties."
—from "We Wear the Mask," 1896
The pairing of silence/invisibility and the relation of that pair to the couplet hurt/anger forms one of the most fundamental tropes of black culture and African American life experience. Because Tongues Untied starts like this, referring to a virtually universal experience among African Americans, it provides initial access to the entire argument of the tape.
|Marlon Riggs appears making choreographed movement in a black void space.||With a meditative voice over-narrative Riggs, quiet on screen, names some of the major theses of the piece.|
The titles come up and we then see Marlon Riggs naked in black void (though we don't know it's Riggs at this point) while the audio track continues to refer to silence. The tape begins to make an argument against silence, calling it a shield, a cloak, a sword-one that cuts both ways. The narrator calls for speaking out for one's self, finally revealing, "now that I have faced death," asking for an initiation while we see men kiss.
The mood drastically shifts from the dark limbo space to a brightly lit room. The camera pans across the body of a man calling a phone sex line. In a comic fantasy, suddenly the phone line is transformed. The caller seeks a "BGA," (black gay activist) for very safe sex and activist tasks such as licking envelopes. From this comic transition, the tone changes to stories of resistance, starting with the snap. Snapping, or finger popping, is a characteristic gesture in the black gay male community. It is often begun with a broad, flamboyant wave of the arm, ending in the snap, but there are endless varieties, and at a later point variations are shown. [open notes in new window]
Illustrations of snaps continue with another storyteller in a black limbo who relates how on a Washington, D.C. bus ride, two brothers at the back of the bus began loudly quarrelling about which of the pair was "the bitch." As the bus goes along, filling with more commuters, the argument becomes more and more pronounced until finally one of them declares, "I'm a 45 year old black gay man who enjoys, enjoys, taking dick in his rectum! I'm not your bitch. (snap!) Your bitch is at home with your kids." (Snap! Snap!)
|A segue begins with stories showing the black gay male gesture of the snap! Marking a common shared gesture within the subculture and one that can be used for ironic resistance, self-declaration, and witty repartee. The multiplication of different men using the common core gesture shows individuality.||The tale of responding to racial discrimination at a gay club ends with dramatic snaps.|
|Various stylizations of the snap are shown.||A snap master explains his craft.|
The next story tells of a group of black men going to a new club and being insulted by the doorman who obviously didn't want to admit them. This story ends with resistance,
"Three pieces of ID? (Snap! Snap! Snap!) She didn't know what hit her! We took our money and left. The next day I reported that dive to the mayor's office, the human rights commission, the NAACP, and the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club. Don't mess with a snap diva! (punctuated with snaps)"
The tape then goes on comically to illustrate various snaps (some courtesy of the Institute of Snap!thology), which provide both a comic lightening of the mood and a documentation of a unique gesture in black gay subculture.
The story of being hassled at a bar provides a hook for the black straight audience in that they too have most likely experienced this kind of social discrimination. The tape thus provides key moments of engagement for its secondary audience. This explains some of the tape's power — it provides a multiplicity of ways to relate to, to get into, the subject at hand if one is willing to listen. It also helps explain the fact that Tongues Untied has been successful with many different audiences. However, the main vehicle for engaging straights, and whites, is Marlon Riggs' own story.
In his personal narrative, shot with a tight close up of his face, Riggs begins talking about childhood sexuality, and how, although all the little boys played at sex with each other, he was different in that the others traded giving and receiving, while he just gave it away. Later he came to understand that this unthought and spontaneous activity was actually socially condemned as he learned the terms, "punk", "faggot," "freak," and "homo." Riggs' testimony sets up the major theme of social/political constriction through language.
He then goes on to talk about how he was one of a few black students chosen to integrate a school in Georgia. As a result he was called a "Tom" by local blacks, suspicious of his relative achievement. He was also called a "Motherfuckin' Coon" by local whites, and greeted at school with "Nigger Go Home." He became totally alienated in the process. Visually this story uses extreme closeups of lips speaking the words: finally a rapid montage of slurs and insults, directed against Riggs' being black and homosexual, which surrounded his transition from child to adult. He explains that he withdrew into himself in response to these labels he never sought. The effect of this sequence for all audiences is very powerful, for almost everyone in the audience can recall facing anxieties and doubts in adolescence. Many sympathize with the eighth grader facing hostile schoolmates shouting racist comments, but the compounding of the identification by adding homophobic terms calls for a new leap of imaginative acceptance for many. This sequence demonstrates how Riggs uses first person voice. Stylistically and politically it provides a formal possibility for documentary to fulfill an increasingly necessary (on practical, theoretical, and political levels) demand to express gender/sexuality, race and class issues simultaneously and in their fully articulated complexity.
By this point in the tape it has: displayed much of its basic strategy: dealing with a complicated interweaving of black culture and gay culture in terms of verbal language and nonverbal gesture. Black subculture in the United States is verbalized by those artists who must "mouth with myriad subtleties," who often follow the lead of the African American folklore figure of the Signifying Monkey, a adroit trickster who endlessly talks himself into and out of trouble, and whose most obvious current commercial cultural manifestation is found in the range of Rap music. As a marginalized subculture, gay culture shares many structural similarities with black culture. But the differences are also significant. Since gays are not identified by physical characteristics and do not share in a common subculture from birth, the making of gay communities takes place among people who are themselves very diverse in class, ethnicity, region, age, etc. Almost all gays and lesbians can choose to pass for straight, while relatively few blacks have the option of passing for white.
In forming gay culture, then, people must find ways of identifying each other, and one of the most central ways this happens is through the creation and re-creation of distinctive language and gesture (clothing, grooming, taste in arts and recreation, are also frequently important clues). The commonplace is accentuated in a way to multiply its meanings. Thus irony, particularly an ironic self-awareness which plays with the arbitrary and artificial nature of language and gesture as social constructions, becomes an important and heightened form of expression. Camp attitude, in the broadest sense, expresses this complexity. For black gay men, participating in two subcultural frameworks at once, discourse is always contradictory: silence/invisibility is compounded by the possibilities of heightened expression as a form of resistance. And poetry becomes one of the supreme forms of that expression.
The complexity of race and gender issues is further developed in the next two sections. First we see an example of gay bashing ending with the victim prostrate on the ground after being attacked by a group (black on black). This passage substantially ups the ante by moving from verbal insult to displaying the threat of direct physical violence against gays. Here the sound track moves from percussive music to poetry relating an incident, with a visual and audio dissolve to Roberta Flack singing, "The first time ever I saw your face..." while we see a school yearbook photo of a young white man. The image increases in screen size while Riggs narrates, telling how within his school experience this person became his friend, and although they were not lovers, what a blessing it was to feel passion and what a curse that a white boy provided it. This section may well be very unsettling to blacks, for it indicates that at least some of the time the black community itself cannot take care of its own, provide the emotional sustenance to survive oppression, and in fact may be the source of considerable pain — "Tom!"
If the African American community stands partially indicted in the previous section, the white gay community receives its share of criticism in the next section as Riggs details his later move to San Francisco's gay ghetto: "...cruising white boys, I played out adolescent dreams." At that time, he adds, he tried not to notice what few black images were available; we see racist caricatures of mammies, studs, and slaves. He concludes that finally he realized he was an invisible man here and quit the scene.
In finding the space to be openly gay, he loses his black identity. This marks a major break in terms of the rhythm of Tongues Untied and the next section serves to provide a space for reflection as well as a further complication around issues of identity. A transvestite appears, smoking a cigarette in slow motion, while the soundtrack plays a melancholy blues, Billie Holiday singing "Lover-man, where can you be?" then a second transvestite in street drag — clothing flashy enough to get you noticed, and probably noticed for cross dressing — accompanied by Nina Simone in a slow version of "Black is the color of my true love's hair," and a first person poem about choosing to dress as a woman. Appropriating black women's blues, detailing emotional sensitivity, provides a lull for considering black men in drag as fully a part of the community.