'Tongues Untied': a graphic and controversial 'Point of View' on PBS

Television

July 15, 1991|By Michael Hill

GAY SUBJECTS on television are usually handled with the same sort of paternalistic approach that was fashionable a couple of decades ago for matters of race.

Politically correct films explain to today's straight audience that we should be nice to them. That is, of course, until a gay couple moves into the house next door to the movie's producer. That would be different.

"Tongues Untied," a video anthem about being a gay black male, has been a lightning rod for controversy since it was announced as part of PBS' "P.O.V." series because this is a gay black man telling the story from his point of view.

So controversial is the hourlong documentary that many public broadcasting stations around the country have said they will not show the film during prime time because of its graphic material.

"Tongues Untied" is a work that combines filmmaking, dance, performance art and documentary techniques into a collage. It is a personal work by filmmaker Marlon Riggs, who gives it a brief introduction, explaining how liberating it was to use himself as the centerpiece of this film instead of looking for others to talk about these issues -- to provide a buffer between himself and reality.

The subject matter ranges from the humorous to the tragic. You learn in detail, for example, where the "Men On . . . " segment of "In Living Color" came up with its "two snaps up" awards. And you also learn about the tragic toll of AIDS as the portrait reveals Riggs to be HIV-positive.

The film can be beautiful and silly and absurd and touching, sometimes all at once, as during an extended bit showing a group vogueing outside a club in New York.

As for the controversy, "Tongues Untied" has nothing in it that should be too surprising. The sex depicted doesn't even come close to what the networks show many nights in prime time between heterosexual couples. The nudity is mostly in the form of cartoons or caricatures that illustrate the image of black men in the gay community. The only real objection is unnecessary and gratuitous use of the "F" word, but even that is mainly in poetry.

To its credit, Maryland Public Television is carrying "Tongues Untied" in its normal "P.O.V." slot, tomorrow night at 11 o'clock on channels 22 and 67.

Riggs ties the film together with a biographical accounting of his life, his early realization of his sexual orientation, and the recurrent put-downs from black acquaintances ironically echoed in his first encounters with racism from whites at a private high school near Augusta, Ga., where he was a top student. His first love was a white student at that school. When he moved to San Francisco, he immersed himself in the large gay community, taking advantage of the abundance of available sex, always with white partners, the fulfillment of a fantasy. Then, though, he began to notice that black men were as invisible in the gay community as they were in the nation at large when Ralph Ellison chose the title "The Invisible Man" for his landmark novel.

To be black and gay -- the double whammy.

Whose tribe do you belong to? Which oppressed minority do you represent? Many in the African-American community denounce you as an abomination out to further destroy the image of the black male, perhaps part of the genocide against this race. Many in the gay community express the same racial fear, prejudice and ignorance that the entire country has demonstrated for years.

"Tongues Untied" only occasionally dredges up the bankrupt gay rhetoric that confuses sexual license with genuine liberation, borderline obscenity with free self-expression.

Its richest vein is one it returns to again and again, a theme of differentiating between anger and pain, explaining how anger can be expressed and thus expelled in a catharsis, but pain is more dangerous because it is internalized, where its wounds go deeper and deeper.

Riggs seems to say that the unique position of gay blacks has denied them anger. This, in turn, has caused them deep pain that drives them into a silence. It is Riggs' hope that this film will help end the pain by ending the silence.

"Tongues Untied" releases a strong voice. Even if you don't like what it's saying, you can't help but be impressed by its powerful eloquence.

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