Tongues Untied

Tongues Untied | The Revolutionary Act | Midterm

“Negro faggotry is the rage! Gay black men are not. 
Spike Lee and others like him count on the complicit silence of those who know better, who know the truth of their own lives as well as the diverse truths which inform the total black experience.
Notice is served.
Our silence has ended.
SNAP!” – Marlon Riggs

I’ll start by saying that I love Marlon Riggs. I think his work documented a very important moment in Black queer history. The work he did in Tongues Untied as well as others, such as Black Is… Black Ain’t, illuminates the intersections of blackness, manhood, and queerness in a way that has not often been done on film. Riggs is able to share his own personal history in a way that allows the audience to get a better understanding of black gay life in the late 80s and early 90s.

Tongues Untied was so refreshing for me to watch. Most of what made this film so enthralling for me was that it actually took the time to portray black queer people in a nuanced way. Black gay men could be more than just the flamboyant hairdresser that got two seconds of airtime in a movie. Riggs reminds us that black queer people deserve to be more than just the butt of a homophobic joke. In my opinion, Riggs most clearly makes this point by choosing to include an excerpt from Essex Hemphill’s well-known essay, ‘Without Comment’:

“”I am a 45-year-old-Black-gay-man, who enjoys taking dick in his rectum.” SNAP! “I am not your bitch!” SNAP! “Your bitch is at home with your kids!” SNAP! SNAP!

In this moment, Riggs and Hemphill take a lighthearted approach to pushing back on the idea that gay identity negates a person’s blackness or manhood.

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The theme that I found most poignant in Tongues Untied is that of the power of black gay love. I think this is a theme that Riggs highlights throughout Tongues Untied. The film asserts this powerful message:


In the end, my opinion is that Tongues Untied served as a much-needed intervention into the heterosexist-misogynistic narrative of manhood and masculinity that we’ve seen this semester, as well as in the patriarchal/homophobic movie industry in general.

Tongues Untied | Lover Man, Where Can You Be?


Marlon Riggs tells the story of an encounter from his adolescence with “a white boy with grey-green eyes.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 7.28.47 PMIn 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.”


Identity and Exclusion

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.