On this day in 1991, the groundbreaking film on Black Gay experience, Tongues Untied, was broadcast on national television in the United States. The director Marlon Riggs stated that the piece was created to
"…shatter the nation’s brutalising silence on matters of sexual and racial difference. [Tongues Untied] 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.’"
The national broadcast ignited a firestorm among the conservative Religious Right because of the film’s focus on Gay sexuality and its funding through a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Jesse Helms railed against the film from the floor of the U.S. Senate mistitling the film "Tongues United." Months later Patrick Buchanan, who was running against the first George Bush for the presidential nomination, cited "Tongues Untied" as an example of how President Bush was using taxpayer’s money to fund "pornographic art." He featured excerpts from the film in his political campaign commercials, curiously editing out any images of Black Gay men.
The Gay theorist and film critic Vito Russo wrote that "Usually, politically and socially admirable films fall short of the mark in the aesthetics department. They are praised more for their good intentions…Marlon Riggs has created that rarest of birds — a brilliant, innovative work of art that delivers a knock-out political punch." The film featured poetic and visual segments including the work of Essex Hemphill, Brian Freeman, Joseph Beam and many others.
The film would go on to win countless awards and accolades including Best Documentary Award at the Berlin International Film Festival, Best Independent Experimental Work by the Los Angeles Film Critics and Best Video at the New York Documentary Film Festival.
Today’s Gay Wisdom comes from Marlon Riggs:
"Frankly, with Tongues Untied if white heterosexuals don’t understand the reasons why black people are angry and just consider this piece militant, then so be it. I’m not going to take time to justify this for people for whom this experience is totally alien. Tongues Untied is an affirmation of the feelings and experiences of black Gay men, made for them by a black Gay man, or actually by black Gay men because the piece has a number of voices. If others understand, fine, but making sure everyone understands was not my prerequisite in making this."
— Marlon Riggs
"(The Christian Right says) Bring back the melting pot. Restore ‘traditional values.’ Re-institute prayer in schools. Preserve the primacy of Western civilization (the only one that matters anyway). And not least, protect that critical bedrock of American greatness: ‘the American family’ Such pronouncements reveal an intense, even pathological desire to perpetuate a thoroughly obsolete myth of America, and through this, a repressively orthodox system of sociocultural entitlement."
— Marlon Riggs
“My struggle has allowed me to transcend that sense of shame and stigma identified with my being a black Gay man. Having come through that fire, they can’t touch me.” – Marlon T. Riggs
Read a great interview with Marlon Riggs titled "Listen to the Heartbeat" here.
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This entry was also this day’s Gay Wisdom email.
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