'Tongues Untied' poetically explores world of black homosexuality

July 16, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Tongues Untied" is a doubly daring celebration of black homosexuality that public television stations, like MPT (Channels 22 and 67), should be congratulated for airing.

At last count, 23 of the 50 largest public TV stations in the country had decided not to show this week's controversial offering in the "P.O.V." documentary series. MPT will air the program at 11 tonight; Washington's WETA-TV (Channel 26) and WHMM-TV (Channel 32) will air it Friday at 11 p.m.

"Tongues Untied" will not square very well with most viewers' notions of documentary television.

That's one of the daring things about the show -- the enormous risks filmmaker Marlon Riggs took stylistically. The work looks more like a music video than a piece of traditional TV journalism.

Riggs is an award-winning filmmaker who has proven he can work with traditional non-fiction TV techniques in "Ethnic Notions," a PBS report on the history of stereotypes.

But here he's faced with the challenge of getting inside a subculture that seems so despised and feared by much of mainstream America that we almost never talk about it. For "Tongues Untied" to succeed, he has to make mainstream viewers feel the pain and persecution that some black gay men feel.

Riggs accomplishes that, and then some.

He does it in part by taking another big risk -- opening the hour by telling viewers that he is black and gay and then putting himself near the center of the report as a kind of magnet that attracts the viewer.

Riggs shows us a high school graduation picture of the first boy he loved, as Roberta Flack's "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" is played. If you are lucky and honest as you take in this segment, you will feel the ache of a pure, romantic love every bit as splendid and sad as what Jay Gatsby felt when he looked across the bay at the light on the end of Daisy Buchanan's dock. It is the ability to spark that recognition and empathy across oceans of prejudice that makes this special television.

The controversy around, and the refusal to air, "Tongues Untied" is ostensibly because of graphic language used. Some station executives also have objected to the nudity and images of men kissing, caressing and making love.

Like any important work of popular culture, "Tongues Untied" tells us as much or more about ourselves than about the subject matter. Those who feel threatened or angered by this piece of video poetry, this cry of joy and rage, should perhaps look in their own hearts for the trouble.

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