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Arts & Culture » Movies

Voices from the black gay community

by David Lamble

Scene from director Marlon Riggs' "Tongues Untied." Photo: Courtesy the artist
Scene from director Marlon Riggs' "Tongues Untied." Photo: Courtesy the artist  

The late Marlon Riggs (1957-94) captured a cultural movement in his 1989 music- and poetry-driven documentary "Tongues Untied: Black Men Loving Black Men." It plays the Roxie on Wed., Feb. 20, at 7 p.m.

Playing mostly at LGBT film festivals, "Tongues Untied" arrived in America at a prickly moment. The nation was experiencing a nasty eruption of right-wing bigotry from North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms. One-time TV anchor Helms had taken it upon himself to wage a crusade against openly queer artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Marlon Riggs. He sought to cut funding for queer artists from the National Endowment for the Arts. But Riggs had traveled a long way and accomplished a great deal for the then-emerging black gay men's movement.

Born on Feb. 3, 1957 in Texas, Riggs was a director and producer with 10 credits on IMDB, including "Color Adjustment" (1992), "Black Is... Black Ain't" (1994) and "Tongues Untied" (1989). Riggs died on April 5, 1994 in Oakland, CA. A poetic State of the Black Gay Union, "Tongues Untied" is as powerful and relevant today as the year it debuted. The film opens with a salvo of highly incorrect language against a backdrop of young men coming of age, beginning with this from the lips of a teenage Southerner: "Motherfucking Coon!" A young black kid sneers, "Uncle Tom! Punk! Homo! Faggot!" Riggs zooms in on the mouths of black men and preachers, white men and youth who attack his young self for his open homosexuality and his emerging radical racial identity.

Riggs' strategy was more than mere shock tactics. He was introducing Americans of all backgrounds to the rich legacy being compiled by black gay men, including the poet Essex Hemphill, whose verse celebrated black men loving black men as a revolutionary act. Riggs spliced together footage of Hemphill reciting his verse with Riggs' account of coming of age as a black child growing up in a segregated, violently racist society. In one riveting scene, a black gay man describes the experience of hearing two black gay men verbally assault each other on a Washington, DC Metro bus.

"You my bitch!"

"No, I am not your bitch!

"I fucked you. You is my bitch!"

"Your bitch is at home with your kids!"

"Tongues Untied" is a rapturous display, scenes of men in social intercourse and dance, with comic riffs including a visit to the "Institute of Snap!-thology," where men take lessons in how to snap their fingers: the sling snap, the point snap, the diva snap. Riggs quotes freely from the vicious anti-gay monologues of comic movie star Eddie Murphy, who instructs his audiences to keep gay men from getting a glimpse at "your booty." The film closes with a roll call of African American men gone from AIDS, along with historical footage of the American civil rights movement placed next to footage of black men marching in a Gay Pride Parade.

Why the title? In the final moments of this revolutionary film, Riggs explains what loosened his tongue. "I was mute, burdened by shadows and silence. Now I speak, and my burden is lightened, lifted."

"Tongues Untied" is informed by the bluesy refrains of Nina Simone, Billy Holiday and Roberta Flack, whose "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" introduces Riggs' real-life relationships with white gay men. The film is part tutorial and part an entertaining trip down memory lane of disco-dancing and nightclub-going. One section follows Riggs' painful falling in, then out of love with the Castro neighborhood, a place where he ultimately felt unwanted, "invisible."

"Tongues Untied" is that rare, almost perfect work of art that sprang naturally, organically from a tribe yearning to snap the chains. Riggs emerges as a complex and important artist, with conviction and a sense of purpose. He's up there among the greats of our tribe, such as novelist James Baldwin, filmmaker Arthur J. Bressan, Jr., film historian Vito Russo and the late singer/AIDS activist Michael Callen. A true gay filmmaking giant, he died in 1994 from complications from HIV/AIDS.

Sunday school

The documentary "The Sunday Sessions" takes a centuries-old dilemma — the demons imposed on believers by orthodox Roman Catholicism — and gives it a fresh spin, complete with a conflicted 20something Catholic theater major named Nathan. It screens on Tues., Feb. 26, at the Roxie.

Many of us who went through a bumpy coming-out process have probably had a Nathan or two in our lives, an outwardly attractive young man who's a total mess inside. Nathan is an aspiring stage actor who would be perfect in the role of the guilt-ridden Michael in "The Boys in the Band." Like Michael, Nathan is abrasively witty and loaded with self-deprecating quips that spell out "Stay Away from Me" to any prospective date, straight or gay, male or female.

"The Sunday Sessions" has a sympathetic shrink at the helm, who seems sincere in wanting Nathan to get a grip on himself. Still, "The Sunday Sessions" is really just an exercise in putting lipstick on a pig, in this case the noxious and, in a growing number of states, illegal practice of gay conversion therapy. A real-life version of Peter Hedges' drama "Boy Erased," "The Sunday Sessions" should probably not be viewed by anyone under the age of reason.

Halfway through, Nathan tells his shrink about the time his dad chastised him for wearing makeup for a high school play. He removes his shirt in the last act, revealing why he was a hit on the bar circuit for a couple of years. The camerawork is a tad shaky, and there are some lines swallowed up by an inferior camera mike. Still, the Roxie is to be congratulated for bringing this radioactive material to those of us tough and wise enough to see through it.

Scene from director Marlon Riggs' "Tongues Untied." Photo: Courtesy the artist

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