BY Logan Lockner in Film , Opinion | 30 JUL 21

Marlon Riggs’s Pioneering Films Are Finally Being Recognized

In the group show ‘More Life’ at David Zwirner, the late filmmaker is celebrated for his contributions as a Black gay artist at the height of the AIDS pandemic  

BY Logan Lockner in Film , Opinion | 30 JUL 21

You hear the words before you see anything else, the syncopated rhythms invoking a bond, a commitment, a prayer: ‘Brother to brother, brother to brother. Brother to brother, brother to brother.’ Seconds later, images fill the screen as the fraternal mantra repeats, slow-moving, black and white footage of Black men – maybe it’s worthwhile specifying handsome Black men – doing everyday activities: dancing, talking, embracing, playing basketball. Only a few times does someone catch and return the camera’s gaze, their eyes flashing with what could be either apprehension or intrigue.

This is the opening scene of Tongues Untied (1989), a film by Marlon Riggs that is included alongside British filmmaker Derek Jarman’s 1993 film Blue and a selection of paintings by Jarman in the first instalment of the exhibition ‘More Life’ at David Zwirner, New York. Although Blue and Tongues Untied share a common interest in lyrical language and wordplay, they could hardly be less alike visually: Jarman’s film is a nearly 80-minute-long pulsing wash of blue colour accompanied by diaristic voice-over, while Riggs’s film is an essayistic video collage, combining spoken poetry, interviews and sequences of dancing and voguing that unabashedly bear the influence of music videos.  

Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied, 1989, film still. Courtesy: Frameline, David Zwirner and Signifyin’ Works

Presented across multiple locations of the gallery in New York and London through October, ‘More Life’ is a series of exhibitions and programmes marking the 40th anniversary of the initial reports – issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – of what would become known as AIDS. (The series takes its title from the final line of Tony Kushner’s two-part gay epic Angels in America, 1991–92.) The same week in late June that ‘More Life’ opened in New York, the Criterion Collection released a seven-film box set, The Signifyin’ Works of Marlon Riggs, which includes Tongues Untied, the shorts Affirmations (1990) and Anthem (1991), and later films such as Black Is ... Black Ain’t (1995), a posthumously released exploration of Black identity that is punctuated by footage of Riggs directing the film from his hospital bed. 

Tongues Untied has endured – since Riggs’s death of AIDS-related illnesses in 1994 – as the filmmaker’s most widely known and celebrated work. The film follows a poetic, unconventional structure, revealing autobiographical details about Riggs’s childhood in Georgia, his coming of age in the overwhelmingly white gay world of San Francisco’s Castro District, and the deliverance and joy he eventually found among his fellow Black gay men — his friends, lovers, brothers. In 1991, however, Tongues Untied sparked controversy for showing two men kissing on television when it aired on the PBS programme POV (1988–present), later described by conservative politician Pat Buchanan as ‘pornographic and blasphemous art’ in a campaign ad for his presidential run in 1992. This national broadcast and would-be notoriety were received as an unanticipated boost in public attention by Riggs, who originally planned for Tongues Untied to be screened in three gay bars: two in the Bay Area and one in Washington, DC. As his friend and fellow filmmaker Vivian Kleiman, with whom he co-founded the production company Signifyin’ Works in 1991, told me: ‘The film was not designed for a broad audience, but for a very targeted audience: other Black gay men.’    

The Signifyin’ Works of Marlon Riggs, 2021, box set cover. Courtesy: Criterion Collection

The initial plan was for Riggs to make a short film based on some poems by Black gay men he had recently met and become friends with, such as Joseph Beam and Essex Hemphill. After beginning the film, however, Riggs fell incredibly sick. ‘He almost died from an allergic reaction to a medication he was taking’, Kleiman told me, ‘and at that point he learned he was HIV-positive.’ As a result, Tongues Untied became infused with a rawness and urgency that it never would have otherwise possessed. In ‘Letter to the Dead’, published in the fall 1992 issue of Thing, Riggs reflected on his diagnosis, writing: ‘The [doctors] told me that both of my kidneys had ceased to function, and that I was HIV positive to boot.’ Yet, he continued: ‘I lay in that hospital bed, my inner eyes, at last, beginning to open.’  

This renewed artistic vitality also eventually prompted Riggs to shift his presence from behind to in front of the camera. Breaking the conventions of his training as a journalist, he not only employs direct address – a relative aberration at the time – he dances, shirtless, the musculature of his compact, elegant figure outlined by light. The film’s overall tone is distinguished by his clear creative vision and sexual frankness. In a later scene, a closely cropped frame shows one Black man’s hands massaging the body of another, and the spoken soundtrack transmutes the image’s erotic energy into finely wrought, evocative syllables: ‘Anoint me in cocoa oil and cum so that I speak in tongues twisted so tight they untangle my mind.’

Marlon Riggs, Anthem, 1991, film still. Courtesy: Criterion Collection

In his final years, Riggs wrote about historical figures, such as Harriet Tubman, in terms of their being his spiritual predecessors, ancestral guides with lessons about how to survive external oppression as well as internalized self-hatred. ‘Don’t you see the chains, my Harriet, my sweet Moses,’ he wrote in ‘Letter to the Dead’, ‘not so much of steel and of the law, but more insidious, the invisible chains, linked over centuries, of silence and shame?’ All indications left by Riggs himself suggest that he believed he would, though no longer living, still move among us, becoming a companion to others seeking liberation. ‘As Harriet walked with me, I now walk with others,’ he wrote just one year before his own passing. ‘We will keep on walking and keep on talking till we get to the other side.’   

'More Life' is on view at David Zwirner, New York, through 3 August 2021.

Main image: Marlon Riggs, Tongues Untied, 1989, film still. Courtesy: Signifyin’ Works


Logan Lockner is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA.