MediaWatch: August 1991

Vol. Five No. 8

Critics Love Tongues United

When PBS created the P.O.V. (Point of View) series, the aim was to give independent producers an opportunity to get their work on PBS. In addition to funding from PBS ($300,000) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($215,000), the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) provided $250,000 of the P.O.V. series' annual $1.1 million budget.

Combine the NEA with P.O.V. and what do you get? Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied, an hour of performance art parading the homo-sexual lifestyle. [Readers should be aware that this article will include sexually graphic descriptions and language.] With its profanity, frontal nudity, large caricatures of penises, and gay lovers in bed, Tongues Untied displayed graphic language and images of sex that no TV documentary on heterosexuality would ever have been allowed to show.

Some PBS station executives got cold feet: 18 of the top 50 markets declined to run it, but it did air in an estimated 60 percent of public TV markets. Television critics loved it. From Los Angeles to Chicago to New York, reporters hailed it for its stand against "ignorance and prejudice," and attacked those criticizing PBS for selecting it.

The Washington Post's David Mills, writing on July 19, insisted that "The only thing Tongues Untied promotes is a deeper under-standing of the world...Viewers who think they simply can't deal with the sight of two shirtless men rolling around in bed in slow motion, well, perhaps they should consider this an instructive dose of reality." Mills didn't offer Post readers the voiceover which accompanied the scene: "Grinding my memory, humping my need...Been waiting for your light bulb to glow for me, waiting to exchange hard-ass love, calloused affection...wet me with the next slide, the resounding refrain of grown men in love."

At one point, Riggs begs, "Anoint me with cocoa oil and cum so I speak in tongues twisted so tight they untangle my mind." A chorus of voices joined in at another point with the refrain, "Let me suck it, let me lick it, let me taste it, let me suck it."

Later, a Washington man described a conversation overheard on a D.C. public bus: "Suddenly, from the back of the bus, a voice wailed, 'You my bitch.' 'Nuh uh. We bitches!' 'No, you listen here. I ain't wearing lipstick. I fucked you! You my bitch.'" The discussion ends with one gay proclaiming: "I'm a 45 year old black, gay man who enjoys taking a dick in his rectum. I am not your bitch. Your bitch is at home with your kids!" To which the man added: "We are now entering the fifth dimension of our sexual consciousness. The ride is rough. There is no jelly for this."

Many of the critics expressed rage at the choice of many stations not to air Tongues Untied. CBS Sunday Morning critic John Leonard was the most outspoken in this regard on June 30: "But why shouldn't we be shocked? The shock of recognition is what public television ought to be about...We ought to watch public television as we read difficult novels: to imagine the other, to hear strange music, to discover scruple. What is happening instead with the cutbacks and timidity is a squeezing out of local programming, a freezing out of independent producers, and a sycophantic pandering to corporate fat boys and middlebrow taste."

Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times wrapped up his July 15 article by observing: "One station manager who rejected Tongues Untied called it pornographic. He's wrong. The film isn't pornographic, the charge is." The same day, however, Ed Siegel of The Boston Globe pushed even further, advocating a blacklist of the politically incorrect: "If this were a rational world, we would be talking today about rounding up all the station managers who banned Tongues Untied and stripping them of their right to run a public television station."

For all the efforts of people like Leonard and Siegel to make it into something noble, the film itself undercut them at every turn. Early on, Riggs described why he was called names as a child: "It wasn't because I played sex with the other boys. Everybody on the block did that. But because I didn't mind giving it away. Now other boys traded. 'You can have my booty if you give me yours. Mmm-mmm. But wait a minute now, if I go first... You went first last time...But I want to be the daddy...You the daddy all the time...I want to be the daddy...I'm the daddy'... Mmm-mmm...Not me. I gave it up for free."

Riggs showed a long scene of a drag queen patrolling the street, while a male voice slowly declared: "While I wait for my prince to come, from every other man I demand pay for my kisses. I buy paint for my lips, stockings for my legs, my own high-heeled slippers and dresses that become me. When he comes I will know how to love his body. Standing out here on the waterfront curbsides I have learned to please a man."

Valerie Helmbeck of Gannett News Service added to the critical accolades on July 11: "In a society that glorifies homophobic behavior, the mere mention of homosexuality or the gay lifestyle is enough to send fundamentalists and the sexually insecure scurrying for the comfort of their scripture or firmly entrenched ideology of the acceptable and the unacceptable." But the entire 60 minutes was a plea for acceptance, an expression of outrage over public rejection, a therapy session for the sexually insecure.

How ironic it is that the Public Broadcasting Service now perceives its mission not as serving the public, but as thumbing its nose at it, taunting the public for being backward and "uneducated." Sadly, television critics, who are supposed to lead viewers to the best in television, are instead easily enthralled by almost any program that either bores or offends the masses.