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What Does It Mean to Be a Young, Black Queer Artist Right Now?

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“Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act,” says the filmmaker Marlon Riggs in his 1989 documentary, “Tongues Untied.” For Riggs, who would die of complications from AIDS five years later, the film — made during the darkest days of the epidemic — had “a singular imperative: to shatter America’s brutalizing silence around matters of sexual and racial difference.” Just 55 minutes long, “Tongues Untied” is freewheeling yet frank, a mosaic of interviews and personal testimony by Riggs and readings of works by friends of his (the poet Essex Hemphill;¹ the writer Joseph Beam²) interspersed with other footage (of Eddie Murphy telling a homophobic joke;³ of Black gay men marching against AIDS).

It’s funny about sex and romance in New York, unflinching about the rise of H.I.V. — and when it aired on PBS in 1991, it inflamed the American culture wars, as then-presidential candidate Pat Buchanan soon seized on the project (and on the $5,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts that Riggs had used to help make it) to push for stricter content and cultural funding restrictions across the country.

After Republican politicians accused Riggs of showing pornography on public television,⁴ he responded with his own Op-Ed in The New York Times: “In this mudslinging match, I along with other gay and lesbian Americans, particularly those of color, have again become the mud,” he wrote.

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