Here and throughout the tape, Riggs provides a kind of time-release capsule in dealing with issues. Something is presented, alluded to, or hinted at, and then is referred to again at a different point in a different context. Depictions are sometimes detached from interpretations and viewers are called on to make imaginative leaps to connect the different points. Or sharp contrasts of style or mood bring different issues into focus or relation to each other.

The problem of homophobia in the black community is presented boldly as a shock cut response to the preceding drag image: "Abomination! " and a close up of a preacher's hand slamming down on a Bible — the Word institutionalized. The black political activist argues that with the homosexual, you can't tell which side he's on: black or gay. Riggs responds: as if you could somehow separate the two. Another says a gay man is no kind of a role model for kids. Again Riggs articulates the effect of such prejudice: to withdraw into silence. Excerpts from Eddie Murphy's notoriously homophobic stage routines follow, along with clips from the step show in Spike Lee's School Daze with the political activists stepping to the beat of repeated insults: "Fag, Fag, Fag." With a sad irony, Riggs notes this is what is produced by the "talented tenth." A subsequent montage equates the bigoted statement, the abusive insult, and the homophobic joke with violent bashing of gays (repeating the earlier visuals), inextricably linking verbal attack with physical assault.

Comedian Eddie Murphy doing a fiercely homophobic routine continues the aggressive tone.   A homophobic scene from Spike Lee’s School Daze continues the spewing of hate.

The response, we hear, with a slow drum beat in background, like a heartbeat, is silence and anger. This section marks the most complicated visual/verbal montage of the tape to this point. By use of a voice-over off screen Riggs gives the response, and by use of an image of a silent face (Essex Hemphill, whose poetry is prominent in the tape), gives room to mark the wound, the impact of the remark on an actual human being. This passage in the tape is dense with contradiction. To paraphrase: if not being openly attacked, one is tolerated only if silent; black gay men will sometimes laugh at the homophobe's joke if only to share in the identity gained by being die lowest of the low.

At the same time, this part of the tape re-articulates the experiences of silence and anger for black gay men. And those responses and experiences are, emotionally, perhaps their strongest shared experience with black straight men. In other words, if the oppression that all black men face in U.S. culture results in silence and anger, black gay men bear an additional burden, but one which is fundamentally emotionally similar to the experience of black heterosexual males. Hemphill's face, silent, unchanging, in close up, looks at the camera/audience with the face that white police and other agents of social control would call "sullen," and provides the visual reference for a complex relay of accusations which finally turn back at the viewer. Again and again the tape repeats this device of showing a face, registering it as visual fact, while a voice over either situates it or provides an interior monologue. Riggs' own image appears in a variety of lightings and framing, each change reminding us of a different facet of his narrative. The tension between sound track and visual track produces and reproduces the cultural situation of black gay men: the dominant discourse of white and heterosexual culture tries to place them outside of culture, beyond the pale, to make them invisible and silent. Resistance must begin with speech, with a counter discourse. Movement from interior monologue to public speech, from the space of one's self to public space, is the final momentum of the tape.

Another first person story details internalized oppression. It begins with a story of self-denial, of how, walking in the white gay ghetto, the speaker (Riggs) avoided looking at another black gay man. As they approached each other walking, both averted their gaze. Unable, unwilling to recognize the anger, the pain, the silence, which they shared, both sought avoidance. A chant begins: "Anger unvented... becomes pain unspoken... becomes rage released... becomes violence, cha cha cha."

A new speaker, Steve Langley, arrives to urge you, if you're economically and/or emotionally coming up short, to "snatch what's yours from the universe." From this point on the tape urges positive responses to the situations it has described. Dance, music, and dress are portrayed as expressive arts which help define and further a gender/sexual and racial identity. First, in a section that introduces voguing, we find a group of black gay men sharing dinner conversation in a restaurant (with House music under). The basics of vogue are introduced: that it is a dance form developed by black and Puerto Rican men; that its dancers imitate the styles and gestures and poses of high fashion models, including photo posing and runway display; that people form groups called houses which then show a fashion allegiance to a clothing design company — the house of Chanel, etc. While several performers are shown in their routines, a poem is read to a mother, confessing a son's gay desires and identity.

Vogue appropriates images and style from haute couture for a street based culture of resistance. For the dispossessed to "snatch what's theirs from the universe" is to appropriate from the dominant culture, from the mass culture images of fashion in Vogue, and to turn those images to their own use. This essentially postmodern appropriation, a cultural scavenging or thrift shop image recycling, brings together two distinct yet overlapping patterns of cultural resistance. African American culture from slave times on perpetuates itself within certain limits imposed by the oppressor (such as restrictions on specific movements in dancing) and maintains continuity with its African origins. At the same time it freely trades in available cultural processes from the dominant culture, such as European musical instruments.

Gay culture too has often had a stance of reflection/ refraction toward the dominant culture, taking over selected parts of it in a way that allows a creative distortion (for example, the enthusiasm in part of gay male culture for opera with its emotional exaggeration, or for some the camp appreciation of Mae West or Joan Crawford, or among others the hypermasculinity of motorcycle culture imagery). As subcultures which freely appropriate from the dominant culture, African American and gay male cultures are always borrowing and changing for their own purposes. The complexity of this activity also provides many different entries into the subculture's symbolic communications for both insiders and outsiders. And in turn this allows for the rapid reappropriation of the appropriated, as Madonna's recent video "Vogue," borrows and hyperaestheticizes street voguing images into high production value, high fashion, and commercial het entertainment. What on the street is an ironic appropriation by the dispossessed, carrying a contradictory message of admiration and critique, is emptied of the cutting side of its criticism when vaulted into the mainstream, although it remains somewhat subversive in its new mainstream context.[9]
[open notes in new window]

The theme of men in groups continues with dancers in a park. This imagery is crossed with a passing visual reference to a black boy dancing, imagery from an early silent film. This makes a somewhat enigmatic statement, perhaps signifying the difference between the boy dancing for the amusement of whites and these men in a group moving for their own pleasure and celebration. But there is no need to interpret the imagery. Here and at various other points in the tape, Riggs makes visual and verbal and musical allusions which remain stated but not explained.

A bar appears as another space of male bonding, a place where black gay men can look at others with desire as well as recognition. Using slow motion posterized images, this section reprises "Black is the color..." as instrumental music while another poem is heard. Further group expressions appear with a four-man doo wop group doing a fine song which has a nice irony: "Hey, boy, can you come out tonight?" The invitation to romance and to the open expression of gay identity turns the dominant culture's heterosexual expectations about men singing love songs upside down in a way that is comic and loving at the same time. The editing of both sound and image becomes more complex here. Having followed the piece this far, the audience increasingly finds references to many simultaneous levels of reference and understanding. From the sweet tender love song the soundtrack segues into the chant, "Black, Black, Black, Black! Gay, Gay, Gay, Gay!" and we see the source, black men marching together with banners in a gay pride parade. (Actually the chant is similar in form to the earlier scene snatched from School Daze of the homophobic chant, but here the meaning is totally reversed.)

The mood changes again to poetry which supplies invitations to love making and images of men undressing, caressing, and kissing. But as this set of sensual fantasies proceeds, we are brought up short with a reminder of AIDS: "never think of a fuck." And Hemphill's warning about the danger and fear of physical sex in the present underlines the anxiety ("this nut might kill us") that often forces men to deny their physical desires and emotional needs. As we see a series of obituary photos and headlines of black men, we hear Riggs: "I discovered a time bomb ticking in my blood." The last photo is his own image. "I listen for my own quiet implosion." His image dissolves into others, of heroes such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and finally the sequence comes to a complex montage of Martin Luther King marching in civil rights demonstrations cross cut with the black gay pride marchers, as Riggs' voice explains his own resolve, his own move from silence to speaking. The tape thus ends with a movement into history, a placing of the individual within history. The adolescent boy, silenced when he became the first to take an historic step and integrate a white school in Georgia, has become the man who finds his voice through the community of black gay men and who has the commanding ability to express that in the video we are watching. A call to action sounds: "Black men loving black men is the revolutionary act."

This last point in the tape has become controversial in its reception. By its placement at the end, appearing in print as intertitles, and then repeated by a chorus of voices, and being phrased in the affirmative/imperative, the tape seems to privilege same race homosexual relations. At least that's how many viewers have taken it, including Cary Alan Johnson in a review in Gay Community News, who complained, in an otherwise very positive review, that it was deceptive for Riggs to make this claim, and to imply that he had left behind days of being attracted to white men when he had a white lover in the present.[10] This comment brought a heated retort from Essex Hemphill in a subsequent issue of the newsweekly, with the poet denouncing the reviewer for narrowness,[11] and a more extended discussion of the issues by Riggs in an interview with Phil Harper.[12] Riggs has also addressed the issue in a later interview with Lyle Ashton Harris.[13] While Riggs argues for a broader, desexualized, interpretation of the slogan, the work doesn't force this interpretation, and through narrowing its focus to images of black men with black men in both social and erotic situations in the second half, after Riggs has declared that he finally left the white gay ghetto, it seems to validate racial bonding and erotic attraction at the same time. Also, there is a reprise of the image of Riggs being caressed and kissed by a black man shortly before the slogan is given. Whatever Riggs intended, he chose to leave out information that many find important.

Clearly the issue is complex enough that it demands its own space for discussion (and the Hemphill retort and the subsequent interviews by Riggs are a good starting point for that dialogue). Riggs has elaborated:

"This is what I am addressing at bottom: So many of the reasons that prohibit us from growing, from healing, from being free are that we hate each other and we hate ourselves as black gay men. As black men, period. You see it in the statistics, you see it in the knifings and the shootings, the dropouts and the fathers' abandonments. If you acknowledge your own humanity, your own worth, you acknowledge it in relation to somebody else — we do not live in voids. And so you are forced to realize the human potential in others. ...For me the revolution will occur not when white people are overthrown but rather when we can say to ourselves, 'I love who I am, I love my blackness, my maleness. What I am is whole and beautiful, and really wonderful,' and when we come to terms with each other and say, 'I love you.' ... Until we heal on a basic level, a cultural psychological, and communal level, we will never achieve freedom; we will always be a sick people. Those are hard words, because they play into what other people consider part of the pathology of the black community. Yet we do need to acknowledge that — for reasons different from those the white conservative ideologues claim — there is sickness in our community and come to terms with it. We have to begin to heal ourselves by going through all the doors that we have locked and tried to forget about — the doors of slavery, the doors of homophobia, of internalized racism, of shame about being black. A lot of that remains hidden and becomes art of the subtext of all our actions toward each other."[14]

The structure and form of Tongues Untied allows for the introduction of many more issues than does Ethnic Notions. In comparison Tongues Untied is much denser and richer in its allusions and analysis. At the same time, it must be said that not everyone viewing it will have essentially the same or even a similar experience. Some people just shut down at one point or another. In a classroom screening, one student asked out loud, "Is that a man?" on seeing the transvestite on the street and, shocked that it was, refused to watch the section. This is only a more extreme example of what the tape does continually, which is to provide many subjective "hooks" into the piece that not everyone will pick up on. The tape's density — using rapid changes within specific poems as well as strong contrasts between one passage and another as well as the contrast of image against word or sound — encourages a diversity of response. The audience is invited to do a kind of postmodern sampling of the tape. A second or third viewing brings forward new aspects of the tape's argument, and also makes clearer the relation of Riggs as principal narrator to the diverse voices of different poets who are also represented in the work. Riggs is not trying to make his own condition of testing HIV positive a point on which a major understanding in the tape turns. That he has tested positive is a fact that explains some of the urgency and perhaps some of the direct plain spokenness of the tape. It's as if he were saying that at this point in his life he wants to get certain issues out clearly and unmistakably. Yet he also implicates, with a variety of different "hooks," different viewers on their own terms of experience: as black men, as gays, as people who are facing a possibly terminal condition, as people who have experienced racism, and so forth.

The knowledge needed to understand the entire range of the piece is considerable. The ideal viewer would know the face and reputation of Joseph Beams who was an important writer and editor of the first anthology of black gay male writing, In the Life, and source of the "Black men loving black men..." quotation, as well as pick up on a visual reference to Isaac Julien's Looking for Langston. At other points, such as the comic primer on snap, the tape teaches its audience all it needs to know. Similarly with the poems. Some of the writings speak directly of, from, and to black gay experience, leaving outsiders simply to register what's said, while others such as Essex Hemphill's invitation to love, "Black Beans," are lyrics open to anyone's understanding and appreciation. The poetry which motivated Riggs to begin the project, an outpouring of new wirings by black gay men forming a cultural identity in the 80s, provides the most efficient "hook" for all viewers of the tape. It is unmistakably framed within black cultural expression — in themes, vocabulary, syntax, rhythm and cadence. Yet it is also very easy to access for people outside that culture, principally because the first person address of much of it speaks directly to the audience.

Tongues Untied does not cover all the issues of black gay men, nor is it able to explain all the details of what it does address. It seems strongly marked by men speaking from relatively stable urban experience. There's no speaking from the position of men in rural and small town situations, in the armed forces, in prison or on parole, or bound in the distress of alcoholism, drug addiction/recovery, or mental illness. It makes only the most passing allusions to the situations of gay men who are fathers and husbands. Stories of coming out, especially within one's family, are conspicuously absent.[15] It doesn't address the color line and class distinctions within the black gay community. And it doesn't offer a substantial critique of masculinity as found in both gay and straight forms, although such a critique is one of the major concerns of black women intellectuals over the past few decades.

But no work of 55 minutes length could adequately address all those issues, although subsequently, in various interviews Riggs has shown his acute sensitivity to other issues. For example, in the Afterimage interview with Harris he articulately argues for the importance of a variety of black women writers in developing an analysis of African American culture and politics. Making Tongues Untied and participating in its subsequent reception has put Riggs in a distinct position of intellectual and political leadership. He was a major speaker at the annual Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Academic Conference held at his alma mater, Harvard, in fall 1990, and his address subsequently appeared Outlook.[16] His essay on Black Macho media was originally given at the Whitney Museum Conference, "African-American Film and Media Culture: A Re-examination." And within a few months of Tongues Untied 's release, he became a celebrity in black gay culture, appearing in the celebrity columns of BLX and Thing.[17]

Tongues Untied is one of the most sophisticated philosophical and political analyses of race, gender, and sexuality ever put on tape. Analytic and passionate, it marks the point from which further questions, further explorations, must be undertaken.

Afterword, 2016. Marlon Riggs

We are reprinting my earlier article and interview with additional images from the works.

Returning to Marlon Riggs’ work several decades later, I’m struck by how powerful it remains. Ethic Notions was a workhorse piece from the mid-1980s on, endlessly useful for giving audiences, and especially students, black and white, important historical information and analysis to understand racism in the dominant image culture. It appeared at a time of increased awareness about the ideological effects of media and a resistance that has continued in multiple ongoing forms, including current issues such as #OscarsSoWhite. By remaining framed in a rather elementary “image of” analysis, Ethic Notions manages to relatively efficiently put forward the first step of a critique and a bare suggestion of a remedy. His follow-up piece on more recent work, especially on TV, Color Adjustment, updated the argument. Much more critical elaboration and analysis has followed, by people using a critical race and cultural studies approach, particularly in elaborating the contradictions of the minstrelsy tradition and the complexity of minorities working within commercial media.

After I published my essay, word came back that Marlon was disappointed with my analysis of Ethnic Notions as using a conventional PBS style. He had worked very effectively within that and interpreted my analysis as indicating the film was lacking. In part I thought it was. Simple “image of” analysis had already been extensively critiqued within feminist discussions. And much more creative critiques were already present in the independent and experimental world. Even in terms of the didactic educational essay film, by 1991, we had the Dreamworlds video, Sut Jhally’s critical deconstruction of music video sexism using an innovative creativity.

But I was also immensely enthusiastic about Tongues Untied because seemed to go into a new artistic space. I think that Marlon began it from a deeply personal creative concern. He wanted to make a statement about, validating, and speaking to fellow black gay men. But when the piece was finished it arrived at a unique historical moment so it served not only to validate the black gay male community, but it also spoke to the larger queer community which had become more sensitive to racism in its own ranks, to the important role of black men, and to the disproportionate toll of AIDS on men of color. Beyond that, the US public sphere was seeing an increased presence of demands for gay civil rights, and an intense push back from the religious and political Right. The progressive forces created a space for Tongues Untied to successfully cross over and get a larger audience, most dramatically when it was slated to appear on PBS nationwide. The arch conservatives rallied their forces and found the perfect political spokesperson in Senator Jesse Helms who denounced the film as “pornographic.” In the short run the Right won: PBS slots were often cancelled or the film was shown at an extremely late hour. But the increased attention simply validated it for a broader audience.

If you heard the film was “pornographic” before seeing it, you would never see any hardcore or extremely sexualized images on black gay men in the work itself. Instead of being a celebration of physical sexuality, the film again and again returned to issues of tenderness, intimacy, sharing, friendship, brotherhood, and support. By using his own personal history, Riggs connected directly to the viewers. When we finally do see two men naked and kissing near the end of the film, it is expressed within privacy, shared gentleness, and respect. Again and again, the film appeals to black gay men to speak up and open, to come out of the closet, to be a political presence in the world. And just as importantly, to open themselves up to being honest, vulnerable, tender, and loving of each other. This is a call for a new kind of manhood, one which can speak without the mask, one that can celebrate love. That appeal is one that crosses over race and gender, and that gained the film the widest and most long lasting audience.