Lesson Plan: Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied


Ian here

In the spring of 2016, I taught two concurrent sections of a seminar on Avant-Garde Film and Video Art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When I tallied up the 25 final papers across my two sections, I received two papers on Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), two papers on Stan Brakhage’s The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971), three papers on Carolee Schneemann’s Fuses (1967) … and six papers on Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied (1989). Clearly, the video had struck a nerve, above and beyond anything else I had shown in the course had managed to do.

I have subsequently integrated the video into my course “Moving Images and Arguments,” on cinematic rhetoric, and I definitely plan to teach it again in the future, across a variety of possible contexts. I like to take a relatively hands-off approach when teaching Tongues Untied, privileging student conversation over lecture. However, I do have some notes on things I have found it productive to turn to while leading discussion, based primarily around clips I find to be especially rich.

Genre and address

By the time my students encountered Tongues Untied in my Avant-Garde Cinema/Video Art course, they had seen plenty of things that had broken their expectations of what cinema could be. They had seen the dancing leaves and dead wings of Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963). They had seen Jack Smith’s crazed stare, and heard his even more crazed stories (interrupted by bursts of radio noise, as laid out in the projection instructions) in Ken Jacobs’ Blonde Cobra (1963). And so I was surprised by how much, by this point, Tongues Untied still threw them for a loop.

The situation, I surmise, was this: By the time they encountered Tongues Untied, they had a pretty good idea of what an “experimental film” should look like. Tongues Untied, though, broke this mold. Rather than triggering the associations of “experimental film” or “video art,” it triggered associations of “documentary” … and then proceeded to disrupt the expectations that followed.

The biggest disruption students reported was to their expectations of how they would be addressed as an audience. Students expected a “documentary” film such as this one to educate them. In this particular case, they expected a video that would educate an audience larger than the Black, gay men about this particular subculture. Those are not, however, this video’s intentions: it is, primarily, a call to action, a celebration of Black gay culture that aims at inspiring new Black gay voices. This means it is much more personal, and has a very different form of address, than students were expecting. Although there were various queer students and students of color in my classroom, there were no Black gay men. My students’ opinions were nearly unanimous: this video was not, primarily, “for” them. Their expectation to be “educated” had been thwarted, because they were not the primary addressee of this video. And this was, in fact, a feeling that was unfamiliar to many of them. In a discussion board post, one of my students wrote that he had come to recognize his desire to “understand” this culture—and, presumably, be handed a roadmap for the correct political action he could take—to be “a privileged response,” one that prized the unambiguous certainty of a dispassionate onlooker, “when in reality that is unattainable.”

It is wonderful for students to have this kind of open discussion! The question is, though: once they have finished, how do you turn things back to the specificities of the video? One way is to dwell a bit more on issues of genre. Perhaps the video is not best described as a “documentary.” But, then, what is it? The answer: so many things! So, so many things!

We could call it an “essay film,” but that is only one literary genre that we could connect it to. After all, much of the film takes the form of poetry recitations, so we could also include it in the pantheon of poetry on film. Sheila Petty, meanwhile, makes the case—quite convincingly, in my opinion—that the film is structured around symphonic form, with a distinct “prelude,” “exposition,” “development,” “recapitulation,” and “coda.”[i]

Let’s dwell, though, on the issue of poetry. I point out to students that the video was a collaboration between Riggs and the poet Essex Hemphill, who, along with Riggs, frequently appears in the video as a narrator, reading poetry aloud. I encourage them, though, to be specific about the ways in which the video translates poetry into a specific cinematic form, one that makes ample use of video editing, and couldn’t have really existed in pure spoken form. I usually start by playing the following clip:

Could the effects of this clip be achieved in a live poetry performance? If students answer “yes,” press them. Isn’t the impact of the slurs accentuated through the quick cuts to uncomfortably close mouths? Can’t you practically feel the breath of those hurling verbal abuse? You can gesture at this type of sound collage on the page or in a live reading, but the clipped audio sampling on the soundtrack, coupled with the “video sampling” on the image track, adds another layer on top of the harsh verbal violence.

In my Moving Images and Arguments course, one of my students characterized these interruptions as cinematic “flashbacks,” and likened them to post-traumatic flashbacks. This is a great point! We can imagine here Riggs attempting to recount his experience in a controlled manner, voice soft and steady, but these traumatic memories keeps surfacing, taking the form of shouting voices.

This “visual sampling” technique isn’t as simple as simply cutting to a shot of a face when their voice is sampled on the soundtrack. Pay close attention to the following clip, the “never think of a fuck” montage. As the interjections build, poised between auditory violence and expressions of pleasure, a complex visual-auditory counterpoint takes over, and the dominant image shifts. At the 36 second mark, the video establishes Essex Hemphill as the dominant face, with quick cutaways to the chanting man when he gasps. Around the 1 min 1 sec mark, though, the balance changes, as Hemphill raises his voice: now, his clipped syllables begin motivating the cuts, and we see the two men at almost equal intervals.

It’s a segment that’s really worth going through frame-by-frame. I know that YouTube is ill-suited to this particular task, so perhaps in the future I’ll do a more thorough analysis, and post some graphs …

Intersectional montage

Historical trivia: the year of Tongues Untied‘s release, 1989, was the same year that Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality.[ii] When I introduce the film to students, I point out that, although the term itself wouldn’t widely enter the public’s vocabulary until much more recent times, it is still very much the phenomena the video is about, even if it didn’t yet go by such a widely-recognized name. Perhaps nothing illustrates this better than the following clip, which could practically be embedded next to the dictionary definition of the term:

Sometimes, the theme of intersectionality is quite overt (as in the clip above). Other times, though, Riggs’ rhetorical touch is quite soft. In 2016, with marriage equality as the law of the land in the US, the analogy between the Gay Rights movement and the Civil Rights movement has become old hat. I encourage students, though, to try to put themselves in the minds of a Black gay man a quarter of a century ago, before this analogy was dominant in the minds of most Americans. How do you leverage the different elements  of your intersectional identity to make a compelling claim? Riggs’ answer is often, “subtly, through well-timed image/sound relationships.” I know it’s hard to unlearn the analogies you know, but as you watch the following clip, try not to let your 2016 viewpoint cloud your appreciation of the careful work being done. What do we see, what do we hear, and when?

Photographs of AIDS victims give way to a photograph of Riggs’ own face. (Riggs in fact had five more years to live; he died of AIDS in 1994.) From this, we dissolve into Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and other Black activists. On the soundtrack, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” gradually builds, as footage of Civil Rights marches slowly dissolves in. An inattentive listener could be forgiven for thinking that this was a period recording from the 1960s, but the careful listener will hear one of the singers insert the line “ain’t gonna let homophobia …” into the lyrics (at 1 min 25 sec in the above clip). This alteration of the original lyrics becomes even more prominent as several voices join in—notably, right at the moment that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s face floats into full visibility (1 min 32 sec in the clip). From here on in, Riggs plays fast and loose with time period and cause. A Selma march banner dissolves into footage from a Pride Parade. The message, by this point, is clear: Riggs is claiming a historical lineage. This is his grand riposte to the homophobes in the African American community that earlier drew his and Hemphill’s ire. And it’s a surprisingly slow and careful build, given how effortless the connection seems in 2016!

Those are my general go-to discussion moments, but of course I give students plenty of time to pick out anything they want to draw class attention to. So far, they’ve been quite adept at animating their own discussion on this video!


[i]. Petty, Sheila. “Silence and Its Opposite: Expressions of Race in Tongues Untied.” In Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Edited by Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998. (I have typically used this as course reading to pair with the video.)

[ii]. Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” The University of Chicago Legal Forum 140 (1989): 139-167


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