Tongues Untied (1989)
December 14, 2022 6:48 PM - Subscribe

A documentary about the experiences of black gay men living in the United States of America in the late 1980s. Trailer

The film was released in 1989 at the height of the AIDS crisis, a year before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibited discrimination against people with various medical conditions (including HIV/AIDS). At the time the disease was not well understood, was even more stigmatized than it is now, and had no cure, so contracting AIDS was effectively a death sentence. Nonetheless, medical attention from the U.S. government focused on abstinence rather than treatment (thanks to Sen. Jesse Helms, whose moral compass almost always pointed to true jackass).

Like the rest of Marlon Riggs' work, this film is a product of its time, yes; it's also at times provocative, hurt, defiant, enraged, and celebratory, and all for good reason.

Earlier today, the film was announced as one of the selections to the U.S. National Film Registry "for their cultural, historic or aesthetic importance."

The JustWatch listing is sparse: the film was long out of print and hasn't been much reviewed. Some libraries may have it in their Kanopy collection; Ovid offers it for streaming in the U.S., and it received a Criterion release on DVD and Blu-Ray as part of The Signifyin' Works of Marlon Riggs.
posted by johnofjack (3 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've never seen it--I was too young when it came out--but I do recall this being one of the cultural works that gave the Right rage strokes back in the day.
posted by praemunire at 9:41 PM on December 14, 2022


This was a revelation when I saw it in college; I still remember the furious power of Riggs' and Hemphill's approach and the unashamed beauty of Black bodies in the film. It was perfect for that time and I was just thinking about a rewatch. Thanks, johnofjack; great to hear it's been added to the US National Film Registry.

FWIW, Criterion Channel has an "Inspired by Marlon Riggs" collection of shorts by other filmmakers available for streaming, but really, there's no excuse for this seminal film not being more widely available. If you have a decent local video shop nearby it's worth checking for it; just saw the one attached to our local Alamo has a copy.
posted by mediareport at 7:57 AM on December 15, 2022


Just rewatched this and wow - I'd forgotten how wonderfully musical and experimental it is, a powerful collage of poetry, images, chants, song, polemic, physicality and anger, all beautifully flowing together in a quick 55 minutes. I'd also forgotten how trans-inclusive and femme-positive it is; Black trans folks are tightly woven into the tapestry of the film throughout, which was way ahead of its time for 1989.

The poetry is excellent, particularly Essex Hemphill's but the others' as well. And there's a beautiful live doo-wop quartet performance interspersed with clips from black gay pride marchers that is such a fine vignette.

This is a seminal work of 20th century queer culture and I'll say again it's a shame it's only currently available on Kanopy and Ovid. Although if there's ever a good reason to use Ovid's 7-day free trial, or just pay them $6.99 for a month, this movie would be it.
posted by mediareport at 5:02 PM on February 22


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