When Marlon Riggs’ best-known work, “Tongues Untied,” premiered on PBS nationwide in 1991, some stations around the country wouldn’t run it. The program became a political talking point when candidate Pat Buchanan weaponized the landmark documentary during the 1992 Republican Party presidential primaries, and the deeply personal essay on the experiences of Black gay men and the search for identity was at the center of a culture war. Condemned as “pornographic” by right-wing pundits who distorted the film’s content, “Tongues Untied” was debated in the halls of Congress as the movie became the centerpiece of a wider debate — namely, how the National Endowments of the Arts (NEA) distributes its funding. “Tongues Untied” was one of many recipients, having received a $5,000 grant.
Riggs hit back with a fiery New York Times op-ed titled “Meet the New Willie Horton,” and didn’t mince words. “Because my film, ‘Tongues Untied,’ affirms the lives and dignity of [Black] gay men, conservatives have found it a convenient target,” he wrote, “despite the awards and popular and critical acclaim it received after its broadcast last summer on public television.” Riggs was 35 years old. Three years later, he would die of complications from AIDS.
In recent years, Riggs has been rediscovered by some critics, though few audiences have been exposed to his entire body of work. That may change now that it has become more widely available: This month, seven of Riggs’ films are streaming on the curated documentary and art-house platform OVID.tv. On October 18, the Criterion Channel will stream a comprehensive retrospective of the filmmaker’s work. But it took years of efforts to reintroduce audiences to “Tongues Untied” and other Riggs films to get this far.
These days, the filmmaker’s legacy is carried by his close friend and producing partner, Vivian Kleiman, with