Marlon Riggs tells the story of an encounter from his adolescence with “a white boy with grey-green eyes.”
In a film I already thought of as sincerely confessional, this scene struck me as even more intimate and private. The tender zooming-in and zooming-out on the photo of this “white boy,” overlain by Riggs’s soft, carefully-rehearsed narration and Roberta Flack’s wistful song The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face; these elements allow us to feel the twin affects of pain and primal desire that Riggs associates with this memory. The love of another here is inseparable from a hatred of the self – “What a joy… what a curse.”
Something striking to me in Tongues Untied was the use of a clip from School Daze. The clip was used alongside a homophobic routine by Eddie Murphy to depict conceptions of homosexuality by black comics/filmmakers in the 1980s, particularly in relation to AIDS. A main focus of the film itself is the stigma of homosexuality within black heterosexual communities and the exclusion of black gay and trans men. The reason that the use of the scene from School Daze stuck out to me, however, is because that film also focuses on exploring exclusion and clashing identities within black communities, particularly between genders, generations and skin tones. But the use of the clip illuminates what School Daze leaves out.
In some way, then, Tongues Untied illuminates the flatness of Spike Lee’s exploration of sexuality in the film. Although School Daze explores gender, sexual violence and identity within on campus, it does so specifically on the terms of heterosexuality — which plays into a larger trend of exclusion which Tongues Untied speaks back to. Although the scenes in School Daze that include homophobic slurs could be taken to represent the neglect/disrespect of non-hetero identities in black communities, it still exemplifies what is missing (or essentialized) in conversations about black identities in the 1980s, and perhaps still today.
Fundamentally, identity is much more of a web– weaving gender, sexuality, race, intra-racial identities, and age (just to name a few) together — rather than composed of distinct elements, such that conversations about identity must make an effort to explore how each web of identity is woven rather than the individual threads.