Tongues Untied

Tongues Untied (1989 USA 55 mins)

Source: CAC Prod. Co: MTR Production Prod, Dir, Phot, Ed: Marlon Riggs Scr: Riggs, Essex Hemphill

Identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.

Stuart Hall (1)

Marlon Riggs’ short career (he died in 1994 aged 37) was remarkably productive across a number of fields. However, the chief focus of his work as media artist, essayist and teacher was the interrogation of the ways in which representations of race and sexuality determine personal and public reality.

As a video-maker he produced 8 works between 1987 and 1994. (2) Of these, Ethnic Notions (1987) and its sequel, Colour Adjustment (1993) encapsulate his central themes and concerns. Both videos examine the depiction of black Americans in popular American media. While the former looks at 19th and 20th century print media, Colour Adjustment surveys contemporary prime-time television. He maintained this focus on black America throughout his career and at the time of his death was working on Black Is . . . Black Ain’t, a semi-autobiographical video designed to explore issues of black identity. (3)

This particular mix of form and theme recalls the strategy of Tongues Untied (1989). Tongues weaves poetry, performance, popular culture, personal testimony and history in a complex pattern that emerges as an essentially personal statement. It presents the situation, politics and culture of black gay men using an intense mixture of styles ranging from social documentary to experimental montage, personal narrative and lyric poetry.

The idea for Tongues began as a video about the ‘Other Countries Workshop’, a New York-based poetry workshop for black gay men. As a non-poet, Riggs found himself drawn to their work because it spoke directly to his own experience. Through this, he became increasingly aware of feeling alienated by classical poetic form, which itself seemed to be speaking through and from the voice of a foreign and oppressing culture. Riggs’ focus shifted to a concern with the issue of voices and speaking, and how to do so from and about black gay culture.

Tongues speaks through a range of black, gay, and black gay cultural forms. The video is a melange that mixes the music of Billie Holiday and Nina Simone with the poetry of Essex Hemphill and Jospeh Beam; vogue dance and snap! expression (finger popping). The fictional Institute of Snap!thology, introduces us to snapping in a parody of ethnographic documentary. Riggs simultaneously celebrates the innovation and expression of the flamboyant gestures and acid wit of snapping, while also critiquing the positioning of black gay culture as an ethnographic subject. Similarly, he presents dance as an expression of cultural resistance, community building and cultural affirmation. With vogue, a dance style developed within black gay communities that animates the fashion photography of glossy magazines (such as the eponymous Vogue). Although subsequently popularised in white popular culture (think of Madonna striking a pose), Riggs makes the distinction of the dance as a performance for others (non-black gay men) and within the community. As the video cuts from vogue-dancers to a group of men dancing in Central Park he reiterates dance as a form of resistance and community.

Another key concern is the public expression of black homophobia and its relation to anti-gay violence. We see a montage-sequence in which church leaders decry gay relationships as an ‘abomination’, black political activists who consider black + gay as a conflict between loyalties, and we see excerpts from the ‘fag humour’ industry perpetuated by figures such as Eddie Murphy and Spike Lee. Riggs links these expressions to acts of violence in juxtaposing the violent rhythm of repeated insults with footage of the bashing of a black gay man. This is further emphasised in an autobiographical sequence, where Riggs’ personal testimony is framed by a series of abusive epithets: “fag, motherfuckin’ coon, punk”. Spat out at rhythmic intervals he underlines the interplay of racism and homophobia; experienced at one and the same time.

Through this personal testimony Riggs draws in secondary audiences unfamiliar with the black gay experience. As he recounts his experiences of bullying as a teenager, we recall our own adolescent doubts and anxieties. Yet, while many sympathise with the adolescent facing hostile schoolmates, the compounding of racism and homophobia call upon a leap of imagination for many non-black gay viewers.

However, although Riggs’ voice is central to the video, it appears as one voice among many. The many other voices we hear and see in the film create a sense of a dialogue that unfolds, rather than a singular, ‘tell it like it is’ argument. This dialogic mode of address brings the viewer into a direct relationship with the stories and individuals present in the video. Through this strategy, Riggs’ does not appear representative of black gay experience. Rather he speaks from the specificity of his own experience, which, because of the presence of other voices and stories, is not generalised or typified as the norm.

It is perhaps his dialogic strategy and interrogation of identity that distinguish Riggs from his American contemporaries. While there exists similarities and parallels with the work of other black American independent film-makers such as Spike Lee and Julie Dash, perhaps Riggs is closer to the black gay British film-makers and intellectuals such as Isaac Julien, Pratibha Parmar, Essex Hemphill, Kobena Mercer and Rotimi Fani-Koyde. As Riggs stated, “Taken as a group, we do not subscribe to notions of artistic effort for the sake of delighting the eye. Rather, our work addresses issues of identity, selfhood and nationhood in an effort to interrogate received notions of who we are.” (4)


  1. quoted in Kobena Mercer, “Black Gay Men in Independent Film”. CineAction 32 (1993): 53.
  2. These are: Ethnic Notions (1987), Tongues Untied (1989), Anthem (1990), Affirmations (1991), Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (1992), Colour Adjustment (1993), Black Is…Black Ain’t (1994).
  3. Janet K. Cutler “Marlon Riggs: Identity and Ideology”. Persistence of Vision (1995): pp65-66.
  4. Cutler, pp72-73.