While watching this film I thought of the last two documentaries I have watched: 13th by Ava Duvernay and I Am Not Your Negro by Raoul Peck. Both of these are great works and perfect examples of modern documentaries, but very conventional. When comparing them to Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied you start to see how there is a lot of room to move around in the documentary genres that are rarely taken advantage of. I do not want to rank the three films or claim which is better but I do think it would be interesting to see how the three of them handle their subject matter and form.
13th is an informational piece through and through. Using archived footage in tandem with numerous interviews. It is a barrage in modern issues and their historical causes. It educates and informs on subjects that are not always the subject of education or information, but it does this in a very passive way. You are learning and while an intelligent viewer will think over the information given but that is not the end goal. They want you to know, which is good but it is easy to walk away from all that information with no motivation to act upon it. Because it is a passive experience we do not feel a need to take action as immediately.
I Am Not Your Negro is a very different take on a social issue, it focuses on the civil rights movement through the lens of an individual: James Baldwin. The film uses Baldwin’s own writing through narration and interview footage with Baldwin to progress the narrative. It is very powerful and by focusing in through one man’s eyes you are able to experience this history in a new way. There is a problem with this method though because while Baldwin is a fantastic subject to follow his legacy can over shadow his life. Many people criticize the film because it does not focus on particular aspects of his life that they use to define him. One very popular example is that the film only brushes on his homosexuality which is to so many people the landmark trait of Baldwin. This movie is only partially about Baldwin of course being much more about the time period but because he is such a known and beloved figure people are shocked and offended by the omission of part of his life.
Tongues Untied is the third piece in this progression from education to experience. We may have been able to see through James Baldwin’s eyes in I Am Not Your Negro but we are still mere spectators. Tongues Untied throws us unabashedly, with no introduction or orientation into the life of a gay black man during the late 1980s. There is no main character, there are no names, there is no narrative; it is simply life somehow captured for projection. This is a film made by and made for black gay men, but that does not make it in any way inaccessible. This solidarity in the film’s composition make it raw and real, and the content makes it an experience beyond cinema. This is layers of art building on top of each other from language to dance to comedy to performance to montage to film. Tongues Untied is not like any other documentary I have seen. It does not concern itself with detailed explanation of background information leading up to modern life nor does it use an individual to look at a complex subject matter, it is the complex subject matter. It is a realness that is rarely captured whether on the screen or in life.