Tongues Tied
Village Voice, July 2, 1991, p. 41

The censorship drums are beating again. Their tattoo is Tongues Untied, a lyrical meditation on black gay identity by filmmaker Marlon Riggs. Scheduled for nationwide distribution on July 16 as part of PBS's P.O.V. series, the film will not be aired by at least 17 of 50 PBS station in the larger U.S. television markets. Another 11 stations have rescheduled it for late-night viewing after the usual 10 p.m. national "feed."

Tongues is one of the most honored films of the past decade. Since 1989, it's garnered the best documentary award at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Los Angeles Film Critics' designation as Best Independent/Experimental Work. Not incidentally, Tongues was broadcast last year without any problems on public television stations here in New York, as well as in Los Angeles and San Francisco. It's difficult to imagine a more apt contribution to a series of personal documentaries like P.O.V.

But not for everybody. The five objecting PBS program managers and spokespersons I talked to blandly cited audience sensibilities about language (the F-word is spoken in the film) and "community values," but-no fools, they-each insisted that homosexuality per se was not an issue. None of them-from places as disparate as Portland and Wichita-described the film as "reprehensible," a comment that was attributed to an anonymous programmer by Paul Lomartire, the Palm Beach Post TV critic who made this fuss public a few weeks ago.

As with Andres Serrano's infamous Piss Christ photo, a word is always worth a thousand pictures. To describe Tongues-Lomartire's words-as "contain[ing] sexual street language rarely heard on television, as well as full frontal nudity and drawings of male genitals"-is something like describing Mona Lisa as a bosomy gal with a goody smile. Not exactly inaccurate, but not quite the whole story either.

In fact, Tongues is remarkably poetic. It is also sensuous and frank. Evocations of homosex and racially charged material cohabit; shadowy images of men kissing follow hard on defiant accounts of racial prejudice. The film's refrain "Let's end the silence" allusively echoes ACT UP's Silence = Death dictum. Tongues Untied is not merely Riggs's title, but his aim as an artist and an activist.

It's an apt metaphor; silence is precisely the issue in this censorious climate. Since both P.O.V. and Tongues Untied are NEA-funded, it's no surprise that Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association has leapt at the opportunity to play on both homophobia and racism. (Wildmon, who told me he hasn't seen the film, is, interestingly enough, encouraging public television to air it because "this is the first time average viewers will be able to see how the NEA spends their tax money.") Whether such a smear campaign will succeed or blow over like the recent scandale about Todd Hayne's Poison remains to be seen.

Marc Weiss, P.O.V.'s executive producer, describes Tongues Untied as "extraordinary and transforms consciousness with its humor and passion and intellect." Will the controversy make it harder for P.O.V. to deal with gay/lesbian and racial issues in the future? "That's part of our mandate," Weiss said mater-of-factly. "If we aren't open to provocative work, then we should put ourselves out of business."

© 2002