Tongues Untied (1989)

“Anger unvented becomes pain unspoken becomes rage released becomes violence.”

‘Tongues Untied’, is a documentary directed by Marlon Riggs in 1989. It explores the world of gay, African Americans and the struggles they face both from homophobic and racist abuse, but also from their own communities. Riggs uses a mixture of poetry, performed interviews, and footage, most notably of a homophobic stand-up routine by Eddie Murphy, to create a cultural collage of American society in the late 1980s. The themes that it unpacks are important ones – the tensions between gender and racial identity, the pressure on certain groups of people to appear masculine, the pressures imposed by the skewed and corrupt beliefs of fundamentalist Christians and the rise of AIDS in the 1980s. The documentary draws a line between the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and this new struggle for rights, presenting footage from gay pride marches and, importantly, not shying away from the denigrating, bigoted language. This is the key to the film, and the reason for its title. Riggs is providing not just information on the subject or a narration of the lives of individuals, but he is also providing a forum for their words to be heard. By going beyond simple interviews and tapping into performance poetry, Riggs is allowing the voices of his subjects absolute freedom and, in the end, he is celebrating the joyful, unabashed rhythms of the voices. In one scene, a group of men demonstrate the power of snapping their fingers in ever increasingly extravagant ways, culminating in a ‘diva click’. This scene begins with a simple anecdote, but ends in a punctuated dance sequence, and this is what the documentary does so well: to transform the simple actions and words of a besieged community into art.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s one of those essential snapshots into a time and place that still resonates today. Watch with ‘Killer of Sheep’ to get a similar insight into the invisible and repressed world of America.


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