Tongues Untied

Tongues Untied



One hour in July 1991 created more controversy for PBS and criticism for the National Endowment For the Arts than almost any other. The documentary that caused an uproar and what then Presidential candidate Pat Buchanan called "ponorgraphic art" will be showing this Friday at Atlanta's Eyedrum Gallery.

Tongues Untied will be screened at 8 PM and will be followed by a panel discussion with an original cast member, Reginald Jackson. Members of In The Life Atlanta, the Deeper Love Program of AID Atlanta and the Men of Onyx will also serve on the panel discussion.

The Marlons Riggs film is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and was released this past March on DVD for home use. The remastered DVD includes an archival interview with director Marlon Riggs, and newly produced interviews with Isaac Julien, Phill Wilson, Juba Kalamka, and Herman Gray. The DVD also includes seven minutes of deleted scenes that have never before been released.

Tongues provides a sampling of gay black life in America in the late 1980s. Through a combination of poetry, narrative, dance, rap, music and social commentary Riggs explores homophobia and racism.

Tongues Untied which received a $5,000 grant from the tax payer funded National Endowment For The Arts (NEA) was not shown in many of the television markets around the country in 1991. One hundred and seventy-four out of two hundred eighty-four PBS affiliates refused to show it and in most cities where PBS affiliates did show the program it was only allowed to air after 11 PM. It took center stage in the culture war that was raging in American politics and added fuel to the fire to cut government funding to the NEA. The American Family Association and the Christian Coalition attacked the film for its content, the NEA for partially funding it and PBS for  broadcasting it.

By the time the film was shown on PBS in 1991 it had already completed the film festival circuit to wide acclaim. The film received best documentary at the Berlin International Film Festival, best independent/experimental work by the Los Angeles Film Critics and best video at the New York Documentary Film Festival, among numerous other awards.

The film's Atlanta debut would be at the Atlanta Film and Video Festival in May 1990. It won the category for Best Performance Video. Marlon Riggs told the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) at the time, ""I didn't want a black gay MTV, but rather something that had some conviction, coherence and passion."

The film would show again at the 2nd Annual Gay and Lesbian Film and Video Festival later that November at the IMAGE Film and Video Center.

In July 1991 Tongues Untied was set to be shown on national television on the PBS network. The documentary series P.O.V. picked up Riggs' film and chose to air it under their banner. On July 16 WPBA Channel 30 was the first Atlanta PBS affiliate to air the film at 11 PM. WGTV Channel 8 of the Georgia Public Broadcasting network aired the show on July 20th also at 11PM.

Leading up to the national broadcast debut of Tongues Untied some outspoken religious leaders and conservative politicians fanned the flames of controversy around the film. It received much more mainstream press than it would have otherwise thanks to the individuals opposing the film's content and the public funding. The AJC published several articles on the film and provided favorable reviews. Phil Kloer wrote of the PBS broadcast, "a powerfully threatening hour of television to a lot of people ." Kloer was also critical of the TV stations that were refusing to air the program, "most PBS affiliates are not giving viewers the chance to make up their own minds." He did praise the courage of the two Atlanta PBS stations for airing the film, "fortunately, Atlanta's two affiliates - and Georgia Public Television's statewide system of eight stations - are doing the right thing and airing Tongues." Georgia Public Television spokeswoman Caroline Kowalski told the AJC, "It's not our job to be a moral censor. It's our job to present films and TV programs that depict the wide set of perspectives and to alert people to the fact that this is very hard stuff and definitely not suited to children and adolescents. They should use their own discretion. If they're offended by it, turn it off."

AJC columnist Dick Williams penned an editorial on Tongues Untied that was published the evening of the WPBA airing. He told readers, "skip tonight's 11 PM news. Tune to Channel 30 for an astounding hour of television." Williams taking the politically conservative slant attempted to equate the showing of the film as a threat to the country and not only that but to mankind and our entire future. He wrote, "If you vote, if you care about the United States or about mankind, you owe it to the future to watch."  He warned viewers that it was an explicit film and that their sensitive stomachs may be upset by gay black men on their television by writing, "You must not leave your television or VCR to vomit." He called Tongues, "the most explicit, profane program ever broadcast by a television network." Williams did not hold back his homophobia one bit when he says, "it proceeds to show us how, with a trip through society's sewers. Its actors and the producer, Marlon T. Riggs, preen to rap music, preach in free verse and dance. They also climb into bed together naked."  Williams last act of chest beating, knuckle dragging and round of high fives for the closed minded came when he wrote, "the program belongs in a homosexual bath house."

Acutely aware of the controversy over the film WPBA Channel 30 ran a graphic during the broadcast soliciting feedback from viewers. It asked  viewers to call the station and leave comments about the film. WBPA reported that they received 800 phone calls the next day and that it was 55-45 in support of the documentary. WPBA also disclosed that viewership was around 100,000 and that it was the highest rated program since the previous Fall when Ken Burn's Civil War had aired.

When WGTV aired Tongues Untied it announced that it had received 698 phone calls in response to the film. Of them 396 were supportive and 302 were critical of the station and or the film.

It is not hard to imagine that even today in 2008 if PBS wanted to show Tongues Untied it would cause a backlash amongst certain conservative segments in the American populace. So many things have changed and yet so many things have not.

Marlon Riggs died of an AIDS related illness in April 1994 at the age of 37.

Also showing on Friday, April 18th at Eyedrum is Nioklai Ursin's 1965 short film, Behind Every Good Man. Eyedrum is located 290 MLK Jr. Drive, near Memorial Drive & Hill St. The entrance fee is $7 on a sliding scale. For more information please visit the Eyedrum web site or Film Love.