Monday 29 June 2020

1,001 Films: "Tongues Untied"

The hour-long video essay Tongues Untied is the kind of urgent bulletin Godard might have logged if Godard were black and gay and living in the US under the Reagan and Bush administrations; it's a report from the very margins, composed some way outside the usual channels of production and distribution. Director Marlon Riggs places front and centre a core (and corps) of testimonies - some spoken, some sung, some rapped - reflecting on the dual prejudice faced by black and gay men in the moment of AIDS: under attack both for their skin colour and sexual preferences, from evangelist preachers and notionally woke pop culture (Riggs cites the homophobia embedded in Eddie Murphy's stand-up and Spike Lee's early movies) alike. It may sound dour on paper, but on screen it unfolds as a work of astonishing formal invention: the soundtrack pops with and pirouettes between performance poetry, hard house and barbershop quartets, while supremely on-point editing - splicing together litanies of derogatory epithets, and tangible images of bodies in motion - is matched by writing that keeps finding funny, earthy ways to frame its central quandary: asked whether he identifies as black or gay first, one speaker retorts "which do you prefer: your left or right nut?" Rather than embark on some scholarly shuffle, Riggs intends to make a scene: that Tongues is out and proud might be discerned from its segment on vogueing (scooping the celebrated Paris is Burning by a full year) or the sequence schooling viewers in the art of fingersnapping. Yes, issues are raised, but here too is some of the huge fun of being black and gay: it's a party at which any number of subjects come up for discussion, but one where the primary objective is to make a noise, and thereby make anyone in the vicinity - be they black, white, gay, straight or otherwise - sit up and take notice. Nearly three decades on, no matter that the parameters of this discussion have shifted to varying degrees, we still do.

Tongues Untied will be released on DVD through the BFI on October 19.

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