Tongues Untied (1989)

Tongues Untied

“In this great, gay Mecca, I was an invisible man. I had no shadow, no substance, no place, no history, no reflection. I was an alien unseen and seen unwanted.”

There’s a power surging through Tongues Untied. It demands the attention of its viewer, and it is successful through the use of wondrous poetry and compelling images of the gay black experience in America. It’s a concise but important film that addresses a severely underrepresented topic in cinema, and it does so in a beautifully personal way.

The film is mostly comprised of either poetry or anecdotes from gay black men recounting their experiences. These narrations are complemented by video footage, typically recreating or poetically representing the narration itself. It’s another documentary/poetry video similar to my last watch Koyaanisqatsi, although the films are hardly similar beyond that point. While Reggio was seeking a grander, more philosophical experience about the human condition, Tongues Untied director Marlon Riggs is far more “micro”, using the personal as political.

The movie is surprising in a lot of ways. It’s clearly a low-budget, small-team passion project with its low-fi camera quality and its scarce collection of actors, but this only enhances the movie. It feels like something you’d stumble upon on an old VHS tape, as if it were made for the smaller, more intimate viewing experience. There are also several pieces of footage in the film that surprised me, namely an old Eddie Murphy stand-up clip that is very dated and homophobic: highlighting the complicated issue of identifying as both black and gay in America where discrimination seems to come from everywhere.

The poetry is well-written and emphatically spoken. Although the movie can get repetitive in its structure, it never seems boring due to the passion behind every word. There’s touching imagery and a mastery of the English language from every speaker, willing the audience to sympathize with the hardships expressed. The movie is also sexually charged, with an unapologetic display of lust and love in a number of the stories, which was really great to see.

Tongues Untied is short (around 50 minutes) but undeniably significant. It uses hard-hitting cinematic techniques to build a powerful, often sensual plea for love and respect. It’s an excellent example of the power of the cinematic art.

Films Left to Watch: 837

About Travis

I'm a software engineer reviewing a bunch of movies.
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