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With its unique blend of poetry, music and personal testimonials of black gay men living their authentic truths in 1980s America, Marlon Riggs’ “Tongues Untied” stood out among documentaries of the day both in its presentation and its focus. Even 30 years after its initial release, the film still stands out as a seminal work that, long before today’s standards of acceptance, paved the way for future LGBTQ creators — especially those of color — to draw attention to issues directly impacting their community. October marks LGBTQ History Month and calls upon the community and its allies to honor the work of people like Riggs who dared to call still controversial issues to the forefront in a more conservative time. In celebration of the film and its lasting effects and still-resonating message, Between The Lines chatted with L. Michael Gipson to learn more about its impact.
“The Revolutionary Act”
Gipson is the founder of the Black Bear Brotherhood a Detroit-based social collective that centers black gay men of size. Recently, in a community collaborative event sponsored by the Counter Narrative Project and BBB, in partnership with LGBT Detroit, Adodi Detroit and Onyx Great Lakes, Gipson presented the film to an intergenerational panel and audience at an event called “Tongues Untied: 30 Years Later … What’s Different?” He said that beyond serving as a reclamation of black culture for black gay men “Tongues Untied” also makes bold political statements.
“Politically, the film talks very intimately about what it is to grow up as black gay people in America and to have questions thrown at you on all sides like, ‘Are you gay first?’ ‘Are you black first?’ — be it from the black community or the LGBTQ political community in terms of your prioritization of your alliances,” Gipson said. “It talks very graphically about homophobia in the black church, homophobia in black families. It talks very graphically about attempting to assimilate into white gay culture and finding racism there and what it means to claim and love your own. One of the things that the film makes maybe one of the most memorable taglines is “black men loving black men is the revolutionary act.”
It’s arguable, too, that its deviation from the norms of filmmaking at the time is a political act as well. As Gipson put it, “It does a lot in less than an hour.” But it is perhaps the initial public reception surrounding the film that served to illustrate its necessity: even before its release on Public Broadcasting Service’s “POV” television series, the film sparked a debate about using public funds to create art that some might consider offensive because “Tongues Untied” had received $5,000 from the National Endowment for the Arts. After its release, “Tongues Untied” caused more of a stir because of its never-before-seen portrayal of black gay men.
“It was the first-ever [film] showing two men kissing on national television, and it also had some graphic language in it. So that was kind of revolutionary for PBS to have that in there, because there’s a sexual scene talking about HIV and how HIV has impacted the community and one of the [quotes is], ‘now we think as we fuck’ — and they don’t edit it, they don’t remove it,” Gipson said. “I remember seeing it myself in 1991 or ’92 when they screened it in Chicago. I was 17, and I remember being shocked that I was watching black gay people’s lives and cultures being displayed in public on PBS — the same station as ‘Sesame Street.'”
Despite the controversy initially surrounding the film, as time has passed the film continues to be honored and receive awards for its subject matter, with many stating that its relevance is tied directly to its still-present themes and message. Billy Porter, star of the drama “Pose” on FX, honored the film at the 78th annual Peabody Awards stating, “To this day, ‘Tongues Untied’ continues to wield a transcendent power over audiences with a message of self-love, perseverance, righteous anger and pain, and snap divadom!”
What’s Different 30 Years Later:
At the event, whose participants ranged from their early 20s to late 60s, Gipson said that takeaways varied greatly. He said that those in the older generations tended to view the 30-year anniversary of the film as a celebration of the progress made since its release, while younger people were split among their opinions: some said that meaningful change for black gay men had yet to be made, while others said they saw positive changes regarding equality. Gipson said that at 44 he had the unique position of having directly experienced some of the topics mentioned in the film.
“The film resonated to me as far as I got to see my language, art — like snapping fingers — quips and wit being honored and displayed not as caricature but as something valuable. And I remember that being very powerful at 17 to see voguing and the ballroom scene being portrayed for the first time because I was a member of ballroom culture at that time,” he said. “But looking back on it, I think what was more powerful to me was the reclamation. There were some people who were like, ‘Why are they doing poetry? And why are they doing performance art?’ There were some questions that some of the younger folks had who were much more comfortable with a straightforward documentary style. You know, I didn’t understand at 17 what I could understand at 44 that Marlon was saying that all of this is us, too. There’s no part of black life, no part of black culture, no part of black expression that we’re not a part of. And I don’t know that I got that at 17 in the way that I got that at 44. That was important and also very emotionally moving to me.”
Some members of the panel also had personal connections to the film via friendships and close connections to Riggs himself and its featured artists like Essex Hemphill who is featured prominently throughout.
Still, Gipson added, too, that despite the progress that he’s seen in his own lifetime since the release of “Tongues Untied,” “we’re not perfect” and “we need righteous fire.”
“We need righteous anger. Without the righteous anger, you don’t get [pushed] forward, and we’re not perfect. We’re not everywhere we need to be in terms of equity, much less equality,” Gipson said. “I joke … that a few years before I was born I was considered mentally ill. And then for all of my entire teens and more than half of my 20s, any sexual activity I engaged in was a crime; I was a sexual outlaw until 2002. I just got the right to marry somebody I love four short years ago. Those are huge jumps and there’s lots of time in-between those jumps when things happened. So, you can’t say that’s nothing’s changed and nothing’s happened, and you can still be angry that we can do better and there’s more to do. And I’m glad that these young people are angry and ready to pick up the mantle to take us to the next frontier. I look forward to seeing what they do with it.”
Perhaps in another 30 years, Gipson said, Riggs’ work will once again be re-examined and take on new meaning again.
To find out more about the Black Bear Brotherhood visit blackbearbrotherhood.life.