Berkeley Talks transcript: Late filmmaker Marlon Riggs on making ‘Tongues Untied’

Steve Seid: Good evening and welcome to the Pacific Film Archive. I’m Steve Seid and I am the curator for the video program and it’s kind of exciting for me to have this specific tape, Tongues Untied , not only because Marlon Riggs works on campus and it’s kind of interesting to intermingle on occasion, but because the work for me is a very powerful experience.

The independent video world has, for the most part, bifurcated into two areas: One is kind of documentary work that likes to hide behind this kind of glaze of objectivity and, on the other extreme, there are a lot of works that are kind of personalized subjective attempts at using the media and in a sense they’re counterposed to the objectivity that characterizes broadcast journalism.

But what Marlon seems to be doing very successfully is kind of fusing those two forms together so that he can put a very subjective, but a kind of non-narcissistic, first-person onto the screen and deal with the cultural landscape that typically is supposed to be dealt with in a very straightforward journalistic mode. So, I think that it’s kind of an interesting integration of forms that has a way of tearing apart conventions that have had reign over the media for several years.

It’s also a pleasure that the show is co-sponsored by the Graduate School of Journalism and I wanted to thank them and I found it interesting that some people consider this a risky work and the school had no hesitation about juxtaposing themselves with Marlon.

Tonight, we’re going to be showing a short work first that Marlon just finished about 24 hours ago called Affirmation and then we’ll be showing Tongues Untied . Marlon’s going to come up first and briefly introduce the work and then there will be a question-and-answer period after you know the main tape is showed. So here’s Marlon Riggs.

Marlon Riggs: Just briefly, I want to thank the Graduate School of Journalism for being supportive of me and this very, at least for me, risk-taking work and something that I didn’t consider in doing a sort of pure, journalistic exercise and I wondered if I might have a job after I finished this and I still do, so I’m happy — thank you.

And also I want to thank the Pacific Film Archive for showing the work, especially here in the East Bay. This is the first showing of Tongues Untied , as well as Affirmation, which is the premiere for that work, for the first showing in the East Bay and in some ways, this is such a home piece of work that it’s nice to have it here where it was made and where it originated. I’ll be here for questions afterwards, so I hope you enjoy. Thank you.

As everybody who knows me knows, I’ve been extremely busy these last two months, particularly since completion of Tongues Untied and this work would not have been done without the skill, the craft, the beautiful sensitivity of Christiane Badgley, the editor of Affirmation , so I really want to thank her for this piece because she really did bring it together. Christiane, please stand up! And with that — Tongues Untied — and we’ll take questions afterwards.

(Audience watches the film, followed by a question-and-answer period with Marlon Riggs and the audience)

Marlon Riggs: Thank you very much. I guess I’ll just let you fire off at me. Questions, comments, reactions, whatever? Please feel free. Oh, come on. Yes?

Audience 1: (Question inaudible)

Marlon Riggs: I don’t like “as opposed to,” I mean there’s been that interpretation that people have and I understand it, but for me it’s not an opposition and it wasn’t as if I didn’t ever love Black men; I think a lot of Black gay men have been rejected or face intense hostility as young people — as adolescents, as pre-adolescents — the way I did, you know, as I sort of came into my sexual being or sexual self and discovered that sexuality, I found that more often than not the people who were the kindest to me were those who were white. And I think without thinking about it, especially at age 11, 12, you don’t think in those terms; you gravitate towards people who accept you.

It wasn’t as if I didn’t like Black men; it was that the people who accepted me and embraced me were white and the people who rejected me at that time in my life were Black and it was really, in some ways, trying to struggle through that later on as an adult that I rediscovered the love. It wasn’t a sort of new discovery, if you feel, but rediscover the love, that was there but hidden and bruised. Yes?

Audience 2: (Question inaudible)

Marlon Riggs: No. No, I never intended to do that. I’m not trained to do that. I don’t like to do that. I don’t like discussing myself, but I found it didn’t work, I mean, none of this worked as a cohesive piece without some kind of voice or thread of some kind of story, a person’s true story sort of bringing all of these elements together. And I tried as hard as I could to sort of string the poetry together and visualizations and say, “Oh, it’s experimental and people just have to buy it as it is” and it didn’t work.

And I knew it didn’t work and it was really after sort of going through a hard, long process of thinking about this that I realized that I had to say the things that I actually wanted other people to say which I think we as journalists tend to do. We interview people often until we find people to say the things that we’ve sort of arrived at already in our heads and I realized I was the person who could say those things. I was the person who’d gone through those experiences. And some of the things that I knew would be very painful for somebody else, potentially embarrassing, potentially bringing down some criticism on them, particularly in relation to attraction to white men, I knew that I wouldn’t find somebody who would take that kind of risk to say those things and not potentially suffer. If anybody should do it, it should be me. It wasn’t an easy process. It wasn’t, “One, two, three and here I am.” It took months. Yes?

Audience 3: (Question inaudible)

Marlon Riggs: No, I haven’t seen him in 15, 16 years. And he wasn’t, I mean, I don’t know if he was gay, we were very intimate and friendly — we never had sex. I suspect he’s probably bisexual, he had lots of girlfriends, but you know, so no, we didn’t have a relationship of that kind. It was much more sort of an intense personal, intimate friendship and because both of us were military brats, once our fathers were relocated, we never saw each other again. Yes?

Audience 4: I was curious, I was wondering, did you get any funding from the white community and basically what was their response? Was it indifference or were they trying to help or trying to stay out of it or…?

Marlon Riggs: Did I get funding? Well I got funding from two sources… it makes it seem like much more than what it was there. It was really just two grants totaling a maximum of $8,000 — not a lot for films of 55-minute length. But the Film Arts Foundation, which is a multicultural organization, if you will, in San Francisco and interestingly enough, the more surprising grant for me was Western States NEA Regional Fellowship, as we all know, particularly since we have the Mapplethorpe Exhibit here.

NEA is embroiled in some controversy around funding of so-called homoerotic works, so I applied to them, or actually to the sub-granting agency of NEA, after. It was a half an hour shock that I got the grant. And they told me they did this because they wanted to make a statement about what was happening in Washington, D. C., and if this was going to be the last opportunity that they would have to fund a work like this, that they wanted to go down blazing if you will so… Yes?

Audience 5: (Question inaudible)

Marlon Riggs: Thank you. Well, I hope that the film has said what I have to say without having to repeat it. I think they’re discovering that there’s community there. And I think, for many of us, it’s sort of dealing with this problem — this experience in isolation that’s the toughest thing and it’s only much later that you realize that there’s this whole community and whole history there that you can find sustenance from, that you can find nurturing support from, that I think people find much more comfort and find examples of what they might be like in their adult lives. And there are those kinds of places here in the Bay Area.

I mean, I don’t need to sort of tick off names of organizations in the East Bay or San Francisco, but those kinds of affiliations and organizations exist. And it’s also realizing that your life is, you know, worthy, that it’s beautiful, that all of the things that make you you are in themselves important and vital. And, I mean, that — for me — is a message that I would offer anybody: One, realizing that you are great unto yourself — it sounds like a New Age kind of thing, but you know — and also, that there is community there and without the community, I think people struggle under great duress. But with community I think people can surpass and transcend a lot of the hostility, the oppression which we as Black gay people face. Yes?

Audience 6: (Question inaudible)

Marlon Riggs: The question is, “To what extent do I consider the Black church to be a negative influence I guess on gay identity?” Very. I want to say, though, that the tendency with that is that many people discard the church in total and discard everything associated with spirituality in total, as well, because of the hostility and oppression faced by the church — Black church, in particular, as well as the church in general. And I think the consequence of that is very hurtful, too, in that a lot of gay people in general, not just Black gay people, really have no spiritual center. Not necessarily a belief in God, but no sense of a spiritual life or a spiritual transcendence to life and so, they’re marred in the everyday problems, they’re marred in, you know, no sense of clear identity, no sense of community, no sense of connection with other people.

And I think, I mean, what I try to do in my work is to sort of restore that through our own sort of traditions and through reinterpreting. In fact, some of the traditions which I find very invigorating like the church. I mean I get moved just by the sound of — you know, when I go home back to Texas from time to time to see my grandmother — the sound of the pastor.

Now, what he says is totally offensive to me. And yet the cadence, and the rhythm, you know, and the heat, and the clearings of the throat and so forth, that just gets me. And I realize I use that. And when I want to use that in my work — the doo-wop singing — there’s been hardly any doo-wop songs, too, about Black gay love and yet doo-wop was part of our heritage which I wanted to claim as ours, too, and to use it for our own purposes and for our own sense of esteem.

So you know I think that’s the way I try to look at it, to try to use some of those elements which are enriching from our culture and fuse them with our identity and sense of purpose in life. Yes?

Audience 7: (Question inaudible)

Marlon Riggs: Actually, it’s surprising me beyond what I ever imagined and, I mean, I never expected an audience like this one for this project. When I was doing this, and when I was conceiving it, I was looking at it in a very small focus and the audience that I could see was probably made up of the men right in here: All Black, primarily gay.

And so when the project was finished and premiered at the American Film Institute, I would say, to a primarily white and probably predominantly heterosexual audience and there was just this, I can’t describe the reaction, it was just this firestorm of enthusiasm just spread nationwide, so that I was getting calls from places like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and institutions, public broadcasting stations which I consider the dogs of the Earth in terms of their conservatism. I mean, I was getting all these sort of calls and requests from film festivals and since then it’s just, I mean it’s just blossomed.

I just returned from Berlin where it had its European premiere there just last week. And there are all kinds of film festivals now that want it worldwide. Thank you. So, I mean it’s just — it’s going far beyond my imagination. Now, how that will translate in terms of money, I have no idea. But, you know, in terms of people seeing it, which you know is nice, people are getting a chance to see it. Yes?

Audience 8: (Question inaudible)

Marlon Riggs: I know what you mean. Did everybody hear that question? The question is if I can sort of synopsize it is that I mean there are… in some ways people have said it in this way — that you’ve let a lot of secrets out of the closet. Sort of secrets, not in the sense of being afraid and closeted, but secrets that were precious to us, things that we shared, and now they will become fashionable, so that you will see, for instance, people in Berlin snapping or trying to snap.

I mean, you’ll see people doing the electric slide you know who never, people sort of mouthing things: “Black man,” “brother to brother, brother,” and have no idea what they’re — and I mean that’s always a risk. I think if anything, we’re exploring something that’s very personal and moving to you.

I mean I thought of that in the entire sequence dealing with my HIV status as well as all the faces of the names of the friends and associates who have died. And I realize for a lot of people who would see this, those things will just be consumed just like any other kind of television program, though for me it was extremely meaningful, and obviously very personal.

And still I felt it was worth the risk, the trade-off, to share with people who would be moved in a very meaningful way. I know, that’s the risk you take. So I haven’t seen too many people trying to do a lot of the stuff. They said they can’t vote because they’re not coordinated enough, so I’m not worried about that. The snapping, that’s okay, people were doing it already so I don’t mind. Yes?

Audience 9: (Question inaudible)

Marlon Riggs: Well, I saw the movie and I mean I was… I won’t say it was a great movie, but I was riding along with it okay for what it was and then that scene happened. This is a scene where you see the five or six guys in school days who are in a circle and going, “F****t f****t punk punk punk f*g f*g punk punk,” you know. And for girls in the yard and it just, from that point on, my enjoyment of the movie was totally undercut because in a way it was malicious, but in such a trite sort of unthinking way which is the way a lot of “-isms” in our culture tend to operate — that they aren’t done with this sort of malicious sort of forethought. It’s really sort of unthinking, ignorant sort of hatred, prejudice, bigotry.

And it made me realize that here was someone who should know better. And that I know people who knew Spike in college who were his roommates who were gay and he should know better — not to put that kind of message out there in that kind of context so unfeelingly, so thoughtlessly, and that he had to be challenged on that. I mean, he doesn’t know who the hell I am and that’s not important, but he just has to be challenged so that he can’t get away with that, so people don’t sit silently.

And the reason he can get away with it is that people do sit silently. They will laugh too in the theaters even though that they know they’re being poked fun at. So, I use that scene to sort of remind us, remind people like Spike, as well as to remind us of our own complicity when we witness those kinds of dynamics going on. Yes?

Audience 10: (Question inaudible)

Marlon Riggs: Nightclub, then the bar? Oh this was the… oh his audiences are mixed: Black, white, gay, straight. I mean it’s… Eddie Murphy is very popular. I don’t know more. This was from the HBO special. There were two shows he had done: One out of “Eddie Murphy Raw” and the other one was “Live with Eddie Murphy” or something like that. But, I mean, they were broadcast. One was broadcast, the other you can get at your local video rental place. I mean so they’ve been out there. They were shown theatrically as well as they were live performances that were, you know, that he performed. I think one was in Dallas, but I’m not sure. But it was seen all over and by all kinds of audiences. Yes sir?

Audience 11: (Question inaudible)

Marlon Riggs: Tongues, which I am very proud of, just got an Outstanding Merit Award from Black Filmmaker’s Hall of Fame, which is actually having one of its events tonight. So, I’m happy to see you all here. And in Berlin it received Best Documentary. People don’t know what to call this at the Berlin International Film Festival. So I’ve gotten “Best Performance Art,” “Best Documentary,” “new visions,” “experimental”… I don’t know what to call it myself. Yes?

Audience 12: (Question inaudible)

Marlon Riggs: Thank you. I met a Black guy actually in Berlin who said, “You know, when I was watching this, I was thinking in my seat because I was looking on the screen there and it seemed like you had come and stolen into my house, ripped through all of my drawers, found my diaries, and read them in public on a stage.” You know, he says, “I was shocked to see somebody sort of telling my secrets so intimately, you know, and in a public arena.” So and I realized that was… I mean, that was a hope that it would resonate for so many of use who have never had our stories told. And that other people would start to tell their stories, too, whether through literature or film or video — that they would be inspired to do their own storytelling. Yes, Bret?

Audience 13: (Question inaudible)

Marlon Riggs: “Black gay filmmaker” I guess is what I have to get used to now. I mean, in a brief, I have just found virtue in my voice and that’s something that I never trusted before. I always had to hear other people’s voices when I would write or hear other people’s voices when I considered narration for something. And the thing that I tried to push on my students, which they know by now, is that their voices are important. And that’s something that we tend to have washed out of us, conditioned out of us just by mainstreamed culture.

I mean, the voices we hear are the kind of voices we hear on broadcast you know? And I mean they’re not the voices of people, generally. They’re trained, dispassionate voices — they’re voices of a particular section, region of the country, particular racial background, ethnic background — and they tend to exclude a great diversity of people.

So, I’ve really come to trust that, and to listen to my voice and, in turn, in listening to my voice, to listen to echoes of voices from the past: my grandmother’s voice, my great-grandmother’s voice, the voice of Harriet Tubman, whom I’ve never heard, of course, in person, but still I hear and speaks to me. And I trust those voices in an intrinsic way that I don’t think I did before in a sense that I will allow them to speak, too, and feel that they have something valid and legitimate to say. And they will stand up to anybody else. Yes?

Audience 14: (Question inaudible)

Marlon Riggs: Strange question. I think the white gay community could do a lot to move itself forward on a number of issues, whether they’re race or gender or class, economics and I think that would be the greatest benefit. I don’t think that whites need to take care of us as much as they need to take care of themselves. Yes?

Audience 15: (Question inaudible)

Marlon Riggs: It was there again, obliquely, you’re right. I wanted to acknowledge that, but I guess what you should keep in mind is that for me, the conversation I was having in doing this piece was with Black men primarily and we know that. We know that we are portrayed in this highly sexualized, dehumanized fashion and I don’t need to belabor that point. I can show a few graphics and the point is registered.

Now, if my primary audience were mainstream, then I think I would have placed much more emphasis on explaining that. But because I really did see this, and still do… I mean it’s a conversation, if you will, where others can listen, perhaps partake, but the chief dialogue is between myself and other Black men so that there’s no need to explain a lot of things — not only that one issue, but a lot of things that I thought might sort of get lost in translation for a wider audience. And I just wouldn’t explain it, translate it. And people would have to sort of just hang on the sides and get what they can and, you know, and then come back into it when they could. Yes?

Audience 16: (Question inaudible)

Marlon Riggs: It’s tamer, but it’s a different message. I think… well it’s strange. I look at that, I mean it’s very specific, too, in a way because it… the people who are being spoken to by all the voices are speaking about reconnection to the Black community. And in that there is, again, a more specific kind of dialogue happening there. I do intend that in some ways for a larger audience though. And what I want to do and that was fairly in some ways simple, but positive, and that is to affirm that kinds of things that we desire in our lives as well as our desire, that is, our sexual desire. Which is why I wanted to lead off with that somewhat long, but, I thought, interesting or entertaining first-time story.

And then to move into that with an affirmation that dealt with protest. And then from that, one that deals with desire on a political and communal level. What I try to do in my work is I hope to integrate different kinds of consciousness. I think a lot of people… at least it used to be fashionable for people to say that just by virtue of the fact of one man loving another or one woman loving another — that in itself was a political act that one one didn’t have to do anything more in order to be political. That was an action, action of commitment in itself.

I don’t think so. I think there’s a lot to people sleeping with other people of various genders and bents and so forth and… That doesn’t make it political. I mean, there’s lots of people who are extremely homophobic, misogynist, racist, who are willing to sleep with anybody.

So, for me that, you know, that in itself doesn’t explain it. It has to be attending that consciousness. And that consciousness I wanted to reflect in the march sequence as well as in the voice sequence when you hear people talking about their desire for reconnection to each other, as well as to the Black community. And it’s those things integrated that make for me a strong positive affirming Black gay identity. Yes?

Audience 17: (Question inaudible)

Marlon Riggs: We’ll see the response in about two weeks. The Castro is having a weeklong run of Looking for Langston on a double bill with Tongues Untied . March 16-23. So, you go, we go and we’ll see. You know?

Audience 18: (Question inaudible)

Marlon Riggs: Well, the Lesbian Frameline which does the Lesbian and Gay Film Festival each year is distributing Tongues Untied . They’ve been very receptive, if you will. They also see financial interest in this, of course. I’ll see. I know that almost every lesbian and gay film festival in the country wants it. And some want to use it to premiere the festivals this year and most of those festivals are run by whites, so at least it indicates on their level a support for the work.

What’s going to be interesting is to see how the Castro clones sort of react. If they will come, one, and how they will react to what’s presented there. Because I think for some people it’s a very sort of challenging work.

Marlon Riggs: Thank you very much!

Steve Seid: Thank you for coming.