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24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
on April 13, 2008
There was a definite feeling of hope among people in the black gay community in London when I first saw a screening of this groundbreaking documentary back in the early 90s. I know I'm not the only one who felt that sense of hope because my contemporaries and I talked about it all the time. We felt that we could actually see a day that would come, in our lifetimes, when there would be a mass black gay rights movement. A day when it would be possible for all of us to be black, gay, out and proud. Well, that was then.

On a personal level, the screening came at a time when I was still coming to terms with my own sexuality and struggling somewhat. The documentary (and my fleeting meeting with Hemphill, who attended the screening) changed how I was to feel about myself as a black gay man forever. After seeing it available for years and years on (exorbitantly priced) VHS only, I was over the moon when I learned it was finally to be released on DVD. I ordered my copy immediately.

Filmmaker Marlon T. Riggs produced an angry, defiant and in-your-face piece of work that was revolutionary in more ways than just the one. For starters, it reportedly unleashed a huge backlash from the Christian right in the US and Federal funding for the arts came under a real threat. Largely using the poetry of Essex Hemphill, who also appears in the piece, (Is it a documentary or is it a piece of art? I'm still not really 100% sure), along with storytelling, dramatisations, song, dance & movement, and talking heads mostly against a pitch-black background, Riggs lays it all out on what it meant to him to be a black gay man back in the late 80s. It's all here; the homophobia, the racism, the isolation and the loneliness suffered by many, but on the other hand, so also are the black gay activists, the protest marches, the "snap divas", the vogue dancers and the slowly emerging warm feeling of brotherhood amongst gay men of colour. We needed to unite and untie our tongues, was the message, otherwise we would forever remain oppressed and forever remain unheard. It's a reference to "Tongue-Tied in Black and White", a poem by Michael Harper in which he expounds on how the mores and languages of a dominant culture can stifle the creativity of peoples within that culture.

Well, that was then. It was a different era. An era where AIDS was cutting a huge swathe through black gay communities not just over there in the US but here in the UK too. 1989 (which is when this was originally made) was a long time ago and when you consider the fact that a man born in that year would be 19 years old now, it's entirely possible that some people, younger black gay men in particular, might dismiss this film as a fluffy piece of nostalgia. That would be a mistake in my view, as there's a lot to be learned here. It may be from an African-American perspective but this movie documents a crucial time in the history of black gay men and as with all things, it's difficult if not impossible to have a full understanding of where you're going, if you have no idea where you came from.

What I loved the most was that the piece recognised the diversity that existed and still exists among black homosexual males. Although there was much about the movie that I couldn't immediately identify with, there was also much that I could. Either way, I knew exactly what the movie was talking about because I knew the people the movie was talking about. In many instances, the movie was talking about me.

To suggest that hope died with Marlon Riggs and Essex Hemphill would probably be going a bit too far, but their passing was definitely a personification of the huge devastation wreaked on black gay men by AIDS between the early 80s and mid-90s. Our communities lost many true leaders and if you ask me, things have never really been the same since. We may have gained many things but we've paid an incredible price along the way. This is now.

DVD extras include newly released deleted scenes and outtakes, a 1991 interview with the director, Marlon T. Riggs and interviews with filmmaker Isaac Julien, AIDS activist Phill Wilson, spoken word artist Juba Kalamka and cultural critic Herman Gray.

Also recommended: Tongues Untied (Gay Verse), poems by Dirg Aaab-Richards, Craig G Harris, Essex Hemphill, Isaac Johnson & Assotto Saint; In the Life: A Black Gay Anthology, edited by Joseph Beam and Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, edited by Essex Hemphill.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2002
I could identify with many of the thoughts, poems and portrayals in the movie. Being in the life, I could certainly see where they were coming from. They talked about everything from going to white clubs, the art of snapping, vouging (it never died, ..., we started it and we're still doing it). This movie is just great. If you're a black gay /SGL/ homosexual/ whatever-you- wanna-deem-yourself male you MUST watch this movie. I love this film. It'll make you think and laugh and make you proud to be who YOU are.
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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on September 4, 2000
I always feel better about being Black and gay after viewing TONGUES UNTIED.
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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful
on March 4, 2008
If "Looking for Langston" and "Paris Is Burning" are on DVD, then it's about time that this is as well.
This may make past viewers teary. Both the artists on the cover of this documentary died of AIDS-related causes more than a decade ago.
This work speaks about voguing, snapping, gay racism, Black homophobia, being a double minority, and many other issues very relevant to Black, gay men. Some thought it was sexist that Black lesbians are not included; however, others say it would be problematic if Black gay men were speaking for Black lesbians. This documentary talks about many dynamics that affect men mostly or solely.
To some, this may seem old-school or essentialist. There's all this focus on "the down low" nowadays. However, this documentary showed Black men who were proud of being gay and were open about it.
Viewers who enjoy this visual work may want to read "Brother to Brother," edited by Essex Hemphill, one of the men on the cover.
This documentary was revolutionary when it premiered. Jesse Helms and Far Right politicians attacked it greatly a few decades ago. This is an important factor in the "culture wars" pre-Bill Clinton.
You can't fail by seeing and owning this magnificent work.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on August 12, 2008
Being a gay black man in his 20s and out on his own left me with nothing more to be besides being invisible or the sex toy of older men from Beverly Hills. All I had as inspiration for identity were the poems of Essex Hemphill and Blackberri. There were other gay men of color in the West Hollywood clubs, but they provided nothing but attitude (I later learned that I was competition). I'd heard of Tongues Untied through the years but was so busy trying to prove to my friends that I wasn't insane in trying to explain and understand the racism I've experienced in the gay community. I had just finally watched this the other day and I have only myself to blame for not picking this up earlier. It would have caused a lot less grief in my life. Marlon Riggs had not only taken the documentary form to new heights but his message rings true of the experience of the gay black, who have been termed the guys with the `double whammy' much of which I still face today as a gay black man in his 40s. This powerful film speaks volumes in the experience of a group of men who must contend not only with black America and white America, but also gay white America. We must learn to voice ourselves, love ourselves and continue to build a stronger kinship and a community within a community that few ever really want to see or hear about. Marlon Riggs, Joseph Beam, Essex Hemphill among others have provided the foundation for pride and beauty. It's up to us to carry on that tradition because, quite frankly, if given the opportunity we've been given then gay black men will only be heard through the whispers of that allowance or the mistaken anger/whining booming from our expression. This movie is a must-see...not only for black gay men but for gay men period.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on September 1, 2001
Beautifully rhythmic poetry combines with wonderful photographic moments, exceptional dance scenes, and touching autobiographical moments--you really can't go wrong with this exploration of what it means to be black and gay.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on July 1, 1999
This eye-opening film caused a lot of controversy because of its shockingly strong and threatening images. This may be the most uncomfortable 55 minutes in the world for a straight homophobe, black or white. On the other hand, it can be an true film experience if you're there.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 23, 2009
I saw this PBS special when it mad alot of noise back when GAY & BLACK was a taboo subject. It is Pre-AIDS. Otherwise, for the most part it still holds up. R.I.P. Essex Hemphill and Marlon Riggs. Those brothers laid it down first. "BROTHER 2 BROTHER"!
To re-experience this groundbreaking spoken word joint was wonderful. It really shreds light on the BGM community. Pick it up if you haven't yet.
This DVD is a good reference for the young chickens out here. So many need guidance.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 4, 2000
I always feel better about being Black and gay after viewing TONGUES UNTIED.
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Documentaries, well timed, make a difference. Especially when they are of the quality of this 1989-91 documentary about black men loving black men. TONGUES UNTIED was written and directed and narrated by Marlon Riggs who with assistance from other gay Black men, especially poet Essex Hemphill, celebrates Black men loving Black men as a revolutionary act. The film intercuts footage of Hemphill reciting his poetry, Riggs telling the story of his growing up, scenes of men in social intercourse and dance, and various comic riffs, including a visit to the "Institute of Snap!thology," where men take lessons in how to snap their fingers: the sling snap, the point snap, the diva snap. The film closes with obituaries for victims of AIDS and archival footage of the civil rights movement placed next to footage of Black men marching in a gay pride parade.

The film is a lyrical exploration of black gay identity in the United States. Made during a historical period marked by the onset of the AIDS crisis, the works navigate desire, love, loss, and mourning to engage and question sexual and political repression, expression, and deviation.

Riggs`s stories are fierce examples of homophobia and racism: the man refused entry to a gay bar because of his color; the college student left bleeding on the sidewalk after a gay-bashing; the loneliness and isolation of the drag queen. The stories also affirm the black gay male experience: protest marches, smoky bars, snap divas, humorous musicology, and vogue dancing. It is as timely today as it was in 1991 when it was aired on PBS, setting off a wild debate about the National Endowment for the Arts funding for art with nudity, gay themes, and pointed political commentary. Impressive and important. Grady Harp, July 15
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