Empowerment and Gay/Black Viewership in Tongues Untied

by Derek P. Rucas


In Sheila Petty’s article “Silence and Its Opposite: Expressions of Race in Tongues Untied,” she states, “By employing a ‘disempowering’ gaze, Riggs appears to suggest that black gay men are encoding themselves as ‘Other.’” (Petty 424) By the end of the article, Petty acknowledges that Tongues Untied (1990) is a film that helps young black gay men declare and validate their worth to society.  It is apparent that Tongues Untied is an empowering text.  However, I do not believe that it employs a “disempowering gaze” to identify with its black gay audience.  Tongues Untied welcomes gay/black viewership by using symbols of empowerment throughout the text that are easily identifiable to gay/black audiences.  It is therefore apparent that Marlon Riggs has not only created this film to disseminate awareness of gay/black culture to the masses, but also to empower gay/black members of North American society through a structural framework.


Let us start with Laura Mulvey’s notion of scopophilia.  In Mulvey’s article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” she explains that the scopophilic gaze is essentially defined as “the pleasure in looking.” (Mulvey 485) Mulvey also explains that it is the male who usually appropriates the gaze (subject), whereas the female is the recipient of the gaze (object).  Riggs utilizes this convention in Tongues Untied, however, instead of depicting a male subject and female object, he homosexualizes the text so that the male is both “seer” and “seen.”  The audience is exposed to this with shots fetishizing a homosexual cross dressing man leaning against a post.  The camera slowly pans from his ankles to his face, eventually revealing that we are not looking at a female, but a male’s sexualized body.  This stylistic convention is apparent in a large amount of classic Hollywood narrative films, only it is the female who is usually objectified.  Riggs structures his film in order to empower a gay/black spectator despite the traditional notions of “the gaze.”


There is also very little representation of the dominant culture in Tongues Untied.  When discussing “community standards” with regards to public television programming, Riggs asks, “Whose community?” He then explains that, “…one central community (patriarchal, heterosexual, and usually white)…” is the “overarching cultural standard…” (Riggs 187) Riggs chooses not to represent the white, dominant class in his film.  This in turn, reinforces and empowers the gay/black viewership.  When a white person is depicted onscreen, he is a symbol of gay culture and not the dominant cultural standard.  Riggs discusses his battle with AIDS and juxtaposes the dialogue with rhythmic beats and rapping fluidity, reminiscent of oral storytelling in African American cultures.  By making these stylistic decisions, Riggs empowers his gay/black spectatorship while purportedly alienating the dominant group.


Riggs is insistent on portraying a particular solidarity in Tongues Untied, with both gay and African American cultures.  The SNAP! sequence is a perfect example of gay and black cultures combined to convey an alternate discourse, one that is neither solely gay nor black.  Riggs films a group of gay black men producing what is known as the SNAP!  The SNAP! usually punctuates attitude and expression among young black women.  Riggs redefines the notion of the SNAP! by appropriating it to a gay/black cultural discourse.  The same is true with voguing culture popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Riggs depicts gay black men collectively voguing for the camera, thus performing for the audience explicitly.  Riggs empowers the viewer with these images to reinforce the notion of solidarity amongst gay/black subcultures while allowing for an identifiable commonality amongst its viewers.


Through a textual analysis of Tongues Untied, one will notice that the welcoming of a gay/black spectatorship is vividly expressed.  Riggs creates an empowering text that a young gay/black audience can identify with.  He appropriates Laura Mulvey’s notion of the gaze and recontextualizes it for a homosexual audience.  This process is exemplified through the notion of what Mulvey calls “fetishistic scopophilia.”  Riggs also creates a pro-gay/black discourse through the rejection of the dominant culture.  Maintaining this void will help to empower his audience, thus making Tongues Untied a progressive text.  Riggs incorporates notions of solidarity in his film with cultural signifiers such as the SNAP! and voguing culture.  These African American traditions are appropriated by gay/black youth and are reproduced to form easily identifiable codes among the members of this subcultural group.  Moreover, it can be stated that Sheila Petty’s notion of the “disempowering gaze” can be contested.  Marlon Riggs has created a filmic discourse that not only dichotomizes gay and black as subordinate classifications, but also invites gay/black viewers to examine his text without running the risk of alienating them.


Bibliographic Information


Rucas, Derek P. "Empowerment and Gay/Black Viewership in Tongues Untied." Film Articles and Critiques. 9 Nov. 2003 <http://www.angelfire.com/film/articles/riggs.htm>.

transcribed by Derek P. Rucas