Published on June 25th, 2020 | by Taylor Cuddihy


Tongues Untied – Spotlight on Marlon Riggs (Part 2)

Taylor continues his deep dive into the late, great Marlon Riggs. This time around, he examines the performative flair of his quintessential documentary Tongues Untied.4ce729_e26da6feb00a4702941a1642e662ff6e_mv2

Last week I mentioned that Riggs sought to challenge popular discourses surrounding masculinity, blackness, and homosexuality. This goal is immediately clear in Tongues Untied (1989), which abandons the more traditional documentary form he employed with Ethnic Notions (1986), with its voice of God narration and talking head interviews. Instead, Riggs opts for a more personal approach, employing a formal strategy that mixes poetry, performance art, and autobiography to express his specific take on what it feels like to be a Black gay man in America.

Scholar Bill Nichols categorizes documentaries according to the pre-existing nonfiction models they use as conceptual frameworks and the unique cinematic modes by which they aesthetically organize their material. Tongues Untied belongs primarily to what Nichols calls the “performative” cinematic mode, as well as the broader nonfiction model of the personal essay and testimonial. The performative mode stresses personal, individual, embodied experience, representing knowledge as something gained from how we interact with and relate to the larger world rather than knowledge as something gained second hand from experts or books.

This mode often emphasizes the individual voice of the filmmaker. Additionally, members of marginalized minority communities like Riggs frequently make use of this mode to project a personal voice as a means of countering popular narratives about that community that are created by outsiders, as well as connect their personal experiences to larger political struggles. As Nichols explains, performative documentaries can serve as a means “for members of an oppressed minority to explore the feelings and emotions that color personal experience and fuel political activism.” Films like Tongues Untied explore the link between the personal and the political, in this case poetically aestheticizing the personal experiences of Riggs and other Black gay men to stand in for the experiences of their larger community and advocate for social change—connecting documentary aesthetics with identity politics.


To achieve this goal Riggs uses sound and visuals in a more emotionally expressive, non-naturalistic and stylized fashion; unlike in Ethnic Notions, he is not trying to represent historical facts but more to express a feeling. As the title implies, the film’s primary theme is that of breaking silence, the silence about the inner rage and pain that Black gay men live with as a result of existing in a homophobic and racist society. Riggs argues that keeping silent about these issues makes them worse, leading to feelings of isolation and hopelessness; the film represents an act of breaking free of this silence and the inner torment it creates.

Appropriately for a film based around the idea of breaking a long-standing silence, Riggs’ formal strategies emphasize unique methods of using the human voice. The very first thing we see in the film is a blank black screen while a voiceover chants “brother to brother, brother to brother.” The intention is clear: this is a film about voices. More than that, it’s a film about Black voices reaching out to other Black voices. So much of what the film is attempting to accomplish is made evident in these opening few seconds: this is a Black community speaking on its own behalf with a great sense of urgency about issues that affect them directly, and to do so the film will make use of a more expressive form of narration than the standard documentary.

In one sequence, Riggs gives an autobiographical account of his journey to come to terms with his sexuality and discusses the racism and homophobia he has dealt with since he was a child. In between close-ups of Riggs telling his story, he cuts to close-ups of mouths delivering the racial and homophobic slurs that he was subjected to growing up. As he keeps talking, the cuts to the bigoted mouths become more and more frequent, and the slurs they spew become more varied. Here Riggs creates a cinematic evocation of the feeling of being overwhelmed and worn down by a constant stream of hatred and ignorance, using rhythmic editing and sound to express his own subjective experience as a target for racist and homophobic abuse.

Riggs makes use of his own personal voice in this film, but he also provides space for others to tell their stories. At various points, different men address the camera and perform personal monologues about their experiences. The use of language in these monologues is significant; it is stylized and poetic, full of carefully chosen phrases by people seeking to express themselves in specific ways. It emphasizes the unique aspects of their community, their specific uses of slang and styles of speech rather than the plain, matter-of-fact language of a typical documentary. In keeping with this effort to express the culture of this community, one monologue ends with a man ending his story by referring to himself as a “snap diva,” which then cuts to a playful sequence where various men show off the many different ways to emphatically snap their fingers. A voice over narration explains the actions of the “divas,” as a title on screen appears saying that the footage is courtesy of “The Institute of Snap!thology.”


Here Riggs shines a spotlight on a unique aspect of gay subculture with a touch of humour and levity, taking a break from the heaviness of the rest of the film. In doing so he subverts the traditional ethnographic documentary, which has typically depicted Black cultures through the lens of the white gaze, as an “other” to be observed from an anthropological distance. Here Riggs mockingly adopts such a gaze to represent his community from the inside, on its own terms.

One aspect that is unique to this community is how it simultaneously experiences racism from white society but also experiences homophobia from within the larger Black community. Taking up a thread he would explore more fully with his final film, Black Is…Black Ain’t (1995), Riggs touches on the complex multiplicity of Black identity, how his status as a gay man sometimes causes people in the Black community to question his masculinity and his loyalty to the larger Black cause. Similar to how he discussed popular images of Black people in white culture in Ethnic Notions, Riggs uses Tongues Untied to discuss the images of Black men he witnessed when getting involved with the predominantly white gay scene in San Francisco. He describes how images of Black men were virtually absent in this scene, and shows examples of the images of Black men that were most popular in magazines, books and films–the same old sterotypes of beastly or subservient men, often featuring fetishistic depictions of slaveholding relationships. Riggs takes the discussion of theses issues he began in Ethnic Notions a step further, relating his own personal responses of living in a world where these kinds of images are common, and how these racist depictions impacted his own sense of self.

Towards the end of the film, Riggs shows footage of Black men marching in parades and protesting, and prominently features the phrase, “Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act.” Riggs is making his activist intentions clear, arguing that Black gay men need to break the silence about the marginalization and oppression they face in order to challenge the rampant homophobia and racism of the dominant culture. Tongues Untied makes unique use of documentary form to present a powerful and singular vision of the heavy burden keeping silent about oppression places on a person, as well as the sense of liberation that comes when this silence is finally broken. Next week, I’ll explore how Riggs continues to develop his persepective when I look at his next project, Color Adjustment (1991), another historical documentary that acts as a follow-up to Ethnic Notions. Color Adjustment critically examines depictions of Black people on American television, and I’ll discuss how Riggs’ approach to this material may have changed after making a more experimental film like Tongues Untied.

Source: Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary Third Edition, pg. 179.

Tongues Untied is available to stream on Kanopy with a valid library card.

About the Author

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lives in Drayton, Ontario. He received his MA in Film Studies from Carleton University in Ottawa. His cinematic interests include the silent era, Classical Hollywood and 1980s Hong Kong action.

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