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‘Tongues Untied’ Deserves to Be Seen and Heard : Television: PBS fulfills its mandate to challenge viewers with documentary on gay black men, but some affiliates won’t air it.

“I was mute, tongue-tied, burdened by shadows and silence. Now I speak, and my burden is lightened, lifted, free.”

This is Marlon Riggs bashing demons in “Tongues Untied.” He is anguish, passion, rage and defiance, using the camera to undermine prejudice and ignorance while boldly and eloquently celebrating diversity.

Dark eyes blazing, Riggs is also pushing America’s anxiety button, for his exciting, free-form film is about black men loving black men. It is poetic, lyrical, poignant, funny, rapping, street-talking raw art that may, however, nourish homophobia even as it seeks to drive a spike through its heart. That remains to be seen.

Airing at 11 p.m. Tuesday on KCET Channel 28 and KPBS Channel 15, “Tongues Untied” is surfacing on PBS--as part of the public network’s “P.O.V.” documentary series--the way a submarine periscope surfaces amid heavy battleships in enemy waters.

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Some of the language is coarse and graphic. But the film’s critics are also stamping it “sexually explicit.” If that is what’s meant by light kissing and caressing, then “Tongues Untied” is indeed sexually explicit. But “The Love Boat” had more sex and, on any given day, your favorite daytime soap opera is infinitely more sizzling.

The difference is that the loving, gentle contact here is between men.

What really matters is the film’s contact with the audience, and there’s an abundance of it, from poems and monologues to satirical doo-wop to a gay-thrashing routine by Eddie Murphy, whose inclusion reflects Riggs’ anger over homophobia in the black community.

In fact, just about all of “Tongues Untied” is threaded by Riggs’ own experiences, from his boyhood sexual awakening to his “vanilla” period to his testing positive for the AIDS virus. A haunting montage of newspaper obituaries ends with his face.

Hardly run-of-the-mill television.

“Tongues Untied” has already taken hits from the Rev. Pat Robertson’s “700 Club” program and syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick. Kilpatrick had not seen “Tongues Untied” when he wrote that Riggs’ award-laden film was “grossly offensive.”

The Rev. Donald E. Wildmon, leader of the art-and-media monitoring American Family Assn., hadn’t seen it either when he promised that most of the nation would find it “offensive.”

As it turns out, many Americans will have to take Kilpatrick’s and Wildmon’s word for it.

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Although Wildmon has urged (somewhat mischievously, one suspects) that Americans watch the film to “see for themselves how their tax dollars are being spent,” many of the 284 PBS stations in the “P.O.V.” lineup are not airing “Tongues Untied.”

Although refuting Wildmon’s claim of more than 200 defections and a trade paper’s estimate of 174, “P.O.V.” acknowledges that PBS stations in 18 of the 50 largest television markets have refused “Tongues Untied.” The wimp list includes stations in Houston, Detroit and Tampa-St. Petersburg, and there’s no telling how many other stations are timidly airing “Tongues Untied” only in the wee hours, guaranteeing light exposure.

“P.O.V.” is publicly cheerful about the number of stations that are carrying the program. Yet the dropout total affirms one of the depressing ironies of PBS: that many inside the system have little understanding of what public TV is about, oblivious to the fact that its mandate is to challenge viewers, not sedate them.

KCET has already aired “Tongues Untied” twice in conjunction with Gay Pride Week, most recently June 18, when the station says the film caused barely a ripple. Nevertheless, KCET has spread a small safety net, the film’s 11 p.m. time slot on Tuesday being an hour later than the usual time that “P.O.V.” airs in Los Angeles.

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Wildmon’s mention of “tax dollars” being spent on “Tongues Untied” is another of his assaults on the National Endowment for the Arts over the projects it funds. The endowment underwrote $5,000 of the film’s $40,000 cost and furnishes nearly 25% of the $1.1-million “P.O.V.” budget.

Wildmon notwithstanding, “Tongues Untied” does indeed legitimately qualify for endowment support by virtue of having “substantial artistic and cultural significance.” By law, that’s what endowment recipients must demonstrate.

“Tongues Untied” is also perfectly suited to “P.O.V,” which is an acronym for Point of View. This film is Riggs’ point of view. In the past, he’s been pessimistic about how it would be received as a national telecast. “A society that shuts its eyes cannot grow or change or discover what’s really decent in the world,” he said.

We’ll see how many eyes are shut Tuesday.

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One station manager who rejected “Tongues Untied” called it pornographic. He’s wrong. The film isn’t pornographic, the charge is.


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