An award-winning film about black gay life and sexuality has set off a storm of controversy among public television stations, about two dozen of which say they will not air it.
The film, "Tongues Untied," by Berkeley filmmaker Marlon T. Riggs, is scheduled to be broadcast nationwide as part of the PBS series "POV" (for point of view ) on July 16, and will be shown in Los Angeles and San Diego.
But at public stations across the country--including KUHT in Houston, KRMA in Denver, WMVS in Milwaukee and all of the outlets in North and South Carolina, Mississippi and Oklahoma--the 55-minute piece will not be aired.
In all, according to "POV" executive producer Marc Weiss, only 29 stations in the 50 largest TV markets will broadcast the program.
"I would categorize a lot of it as pornography," said Maynard Orme, president of KOAP in Portland, Ore., which will not air the film. "This film does not treat black homosexuals in a dignified way--they treat each other like slaves, like a meat market."
At issue, say the station executives who have opted not to air "Tongues Untied," is the film's repeated use of street language to refer to sexual acts, and an opening sequence that shows the shadowed figure of a nude man dancing.
"We know that with our audience, language is a very high concern," said James Bauer, general manager of KUHT in Houston. "When programs (have) questionable language, we get a tremendous amount of comment."
Weiss said that the series decided to present the film because its message--that pride can be born of pain, that members of oppressed groups must come to love themselves--was too important to ignore.
"The piece makes some people uncomfortable," Weiss said. "But it's a very strong piece, a stirring piece."
Riggs, who was out of the country and could not be reached for comment, had said earlier that he expected such controversies to dog his film, which to date has won 16 awards, including an L.A. Film Critics award for best independent/experimental work and best documentary at the Berlin International Film Festival.
"There's been no indication that American society has come to grips with sexuality," Riggs said in a press release, anticipating trouble with the film's broadcast. "Artists like (Robert) Mapplethorpe and (Andres) Serrano have been attacked for being 'obscene.' . . . My film doesn't apologize for black gay sexuality, so I really didn't think prime time was ready for it."
KCET already has aired "Tongues Untied" twice in conjunction with Gay Pride Week, and only a handful of viewers complained, according to Barbara Goen, the station's vice president for public information.
"We certainly feel that it's part of KCET's responsibility to offer programs that probably would not get seen elsewhere," Goen said. "In Los Angeles and the Southern California areas that we serve, this program has an audience and deserves to have a place on the KCET schedule."
KCET will show "Tongues Untied" at 11 p.m. on July 16, Goen said, preceded by a disclaimer meant to alert parents to the program's content. KPBS Channel 15 in San Diego also will air it at 11 p.m. July 16.
So far, disagreements over "Tongues Untied" have remained primarily within the community of public television stations. But the discussion appears to be escalating into a full-blown national debate.
The Rev. Donald Wildmon, the head of the American Family Assn., a conservative group that fights what it views as indecency and anti-Christian material in the media, decided after reading about the film in a press report to use it as an example in his ongoing war against the National Endowment for the Arts, which partially underwrites "POV." "Tongues Untied" received $5,000 from the Western States NEA Fellowship Program.
In an unusual twist, Wildmon is urging PBS stations to run the film--but only because he thinks that once Americans see it, they will be angry.
"We want people to watch (the film)," Wildmon said in an interview. "For the first time, the overwhelming majority of Americans will have an opportunity to see how their tax dollars are being spent by the National Endowment for the Arts."
Once Wildmon joined the fray, People for the American Way jumped on the bandwagon in response.
"Taking his words at face value, Don Wildmon has finally said something I can agree with: I hope Americans watch this program as well," the organization's president, Arthur Kropp, said in a press release. "What Don Wildmon is going to learn is that the American public is a good deal more open-minded than he is."
In some cities, viewers will be able to see "Tongues Untied" despite the refusal by their local stations to air it. In Portland, KOAP plans to set up a private screening for viewers who want to see the film. In Houston, where KUHT is not broadcasting it, an art museum is showing it.
Weiss said that, given the traditional conservatism of American television, he is more surprised that the majority of major market stations have made plans to run "Tongues Untied" than he is that some have refused to air it.
Still, he said, "it's a sad commentary that a dirty word in a film is enough to get people upset. It's a sad commentary on the priorities of this society, when so much energy is expended on arguing about whether to have a film on the air. Nobody says anything about the thousands of people on the street, the people dying of AIDS. But they get passionate about a couple of dirty words on the air."