A little history: In 1989, Bay Area filmmaker Marlon Riggs took one of the biggest, bravest risks in the history of cinema. He made a poetic, experimental, first-person documentary about being black and gay, and loving black gay men. Not one to hide his face or his feelings, Riggs combined wrenching testimony and blistering manifesto into a confrontational and beautiful work of art. Tongues Untied won a prize at Berlin, played countless festivals and aired on PBS’ P.O.V. series in 1991.
Regrettably, it achieved its greatest notoriety on the floor of the U.S. Senate, where Sen. Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina) used Tongues Untied to attack one of its funders, the National Endowment of the Arts. An out and proud racist and homophobe, Helms stoked the “culture wars” that roused the Religious Right and contributed in no small measure to bringing us to the present political moment. Riggs, a Harvard-educated professor in U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, wrote a fiery, fearless essay in response to the controversy that is well worth a read today.
Riggs cited James Baldwin in that op-ed, and BAMPFA hits the bulls-eye by including Tongues Untied in its Reflection and Resistance: James Baldwin and Cinema series.
The program on Thursday, Nov. 16 also includes a rarely seen, one-hour film directed by Richard O. Moore and shot by Irving Saraf for KQED. Take This Hammer documents Baldwin’s 1963 visit to San Francisco and his encounters with community leaders, as well as the young black people he sought to inspire. Two films, two courageous black artists, 25 years apart.