More Life - Marlon Riggs | David Zwirner

Marlon Riggs

On view June 24 through August 3, 2021, at 519 West 19th Street in New York, Tongues Untied is the seminal 1989 film by documentarian, poet, activist, and educator Marlon Riggs (1957–1994). The award-winning videomaker dedicated his life and career to interrogating the politics of representation and interlocking systems of oppression in American culture and politics.

Tongues Untied, his best-known documentary, was, in Riggs’s words, “motivated by a singular imperative: to shatter this nation’s brutalizing silence on matters of sexual and racial difference.” The film’s collage-style arrangement not only deconstructs representations of Black men and gay men, but also constructs new ones, giving voice and visibility to the rich plurality of the lives and experiences of Black gay men.

 

Join us for special evening screenings of Tongues Untied, free and open to the public:

Wednesday, July 21, 6–8 PM
Wednesday, July 28, 6–8 PM
Tuesday, August 3, 6–8 PM

A photo of the artist Marlon Riggs.

Marlon Riggs, n.d.

Marlon Riggs, n.d.

“As a student at Harvard, in the 1970s, Marlon Riggs became interested in exploring on film the racism and homophobia he experienced, and he developed his own style extraordinarily quickly. Though a documentarian in approach, Riggs made films … that are essays in the truest sense of the word—attempts at describing the world both metaphorically and actually.”

Hilton Als, 2019

A photo of Marlon Riggs and other actors in his film Tongues Untied, made in 1989.

Film still from Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied, 1989

Film still from Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied, 1989

“I had intended this work specifically for Black gay men. Making that very conscious, deliberate choice allowed me to be very free in terms of my structure, the form of what I wanted to say as well as how I was saying it.”

Marlon Riggs, 1990

A photo of Marlon Riggs and Essex Hemphill in “Tongues Untied,” a documentary directed by Riggs in 1989.

Marlon Riggs (left), with the poet Essex Hemphill, who appears in Tongues Untied

Marlon Riggs (left), with the poet Essex Hemphill, who appears in Tongues Untied

Tongues Untied is Riggs’s unclassifiable scrapbook of Black gay male sensibility (a hallucinatory whir of style, memory, psychology).… This is storytelling that arises from joy and pain and pride.… Movie and dream, yes. But mosaic, too.”

Wesley Morris, 2019

Here, Riggs reinvents, or even abandons, the documentary genre. Visual and auditory fragmentation, tonal shifts, and an ensemble of dancers and poets in Tongues Untied—including Riggs himself and collaborators, among them the poet Essex Hemphill and the writer, actor, and director Brian Freeman—inform the film’s rhythmic poetic structure. Riggs’s film also notably features a voguing sequence with important figures in the local scene like Willi Ninja. Ninja would later appear in Paris Is Burning, a documentary released a year after Tongues Untied, which explores Ball culture and queer community in New York City during the 1980s.

A production still from a film by Marlon Riggs, titled Tongues Untied, made in 1989.

A frame grab from Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied, 1989. © Signifyin’ Works. Courtesy Frameline and Signifyin’ Works

A frame grab from Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied, 1989. © Signifyin’ Works. Courtesy Frameline and Signifyin’ Works

Despite the work’s enthusiastic reception at international film festivals, Tongues Untied became embroiled in intense public debates on censorship and federal funding in the arts that dominated public discourse in the late 1980s and early 1990s following its broadcast on the PBS P.O.V. series in 1991.

A production still from a film by Marlon Riggs, titled Tongues Untied, made in 1989.

A frame grab from Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied, 1989. © Signifyin’ Works. Courtesy Frameline and Signifyin’ Works

A frame grab from Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied, 1989. © Signifyin’ Works. Courtesy Frameline and Signifyin’ Works

The very first romantic kiss between men on American television happens in Marlon Riggs’s groundbreaking film Tongues Untied.… As of this writing, if you look up the first gay kiss on American TV, you’ll find a Dawson’s Creek episode from the year 2000. But the truth is that Riggs … broke this ground.”

Jericho Brown, 2020

A portrait of the artist and film director Marlon Riggs holding a video camera.

Marlon Riggs, n.d. © Signifyin’ Works. Courtesy Frameline and Signifyin’ Works

Marlon Riggs, n.d. © Signifyin’ Works. Courtesy Frameline and Signifyin’ Works

“For many this was the real outrage of Tongues Untied, and for many, many more, its principal virtue: the refusal to present an historically disparaged community on bended knee, begging courteously for tidbits of mainstream tolerance. What Tongues instead unapologetically affirms and delivers is a frank, uncensored, uncompromising articulation of an autonomously defined self and social identity. SNAP!”

Marlon Riggs, 1991

A production still from a film by Marlon Riggs, titled Tongues Untied, made in 1989.

A frame grab from Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied, 1989. © Signifyin’ Works. Courtesy Frameline and Signifyin’ Works

A frame grab from Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied, 1989. © Signifyin’ Works. Courtesy Frameline and Signifyin’ Works

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