By the end of 1975, the LA Times had banned ads from movie theatres showing hardcore features. The vice squad was hitting filmmakers hard and busts were common. In short, it was a bad time to be a SoCal sex filmmaker. But that didn't stop ambitious filmmakers from pursing their art, resulting in one-off oddities like TONGUE.
Directed by the decidedly anonymous 'K.B.,' TONGUE is a distinctly unclassifiable film that defies the blaxploitation category in which it's often placed. Al Poe, who appeared in another intriguing hardcore experiment, COMING ATTRACTIONS, stars as Quasi, a mute, yet very aware black man who becomes the objectified symbol of racist hypocrisy.
Like so many hardcore features of the period, the narrative is played free-form as Quasi wanders from strange encounter to strange encounter, most significantly a sexual liaison with his white, Sambo obsessed neighbor, played by a pre-SENSATIONS Bridgette Maier.
It's rare when hardcore films thoughtfully confronted race as an object in their narratives, more often relegating such discussions to the popular fad of 'mixed combo' films in which white women were frequently coupled with black men. But with occasional, yet still mindless, exceptions like the anonymously made BLACK NEIGHBORS, which deals with blockbusting, interracial sex was merely a fetish. In TONGUE, the fetish itself is brought to the forefront on multiple levels, both as black characters desire white characters and vice versa. But more than simply acknowledging desire, TONGUE integrates institutionalized racism into its narrative in ways that are surely divisive, and very likely intentionally so.
The previously referenced Sambo obsessed white female neighbor who, herself, is in a lesbian relationship with a black women, is depicted as finding arousal in the historical stereotype of the 'black superman,' but wishes to have this man submit for her and her female partner's pleasure.
As the film unfolds, subtle hints to the origins of Quasi's complacent state are revealed, leading to a revelation of his own racist attitudes.
But what's most striking is the film's attitude towards its female characters, in so far as representing them as holding the only true power, regardless of race. From the film's opening scene in which a slick talking, Pam Grier-esque woman dismisses Quasi for being a mute, to a bizarre sequence in which he is tackled by a group of little girls on roller skates, TONGUE vehemently reminds the audience that Quasi is an object for use in pleasure, but of little value beyond sexual gratification.
TONGUE is a remarkably professionally made film, featuring well-composed cinematography and a fantastic original funk score. Supporting performances are universally strong and although the middle third of the film eschews its strategic plotting for a series of ultimately repetitive sex scenes, there's a strong sense of careful mise-en-scène throughout.
It would be quite exciting to learn the true identity of mysterious filmmaker K.B., their race, gender, etc., but perhaps the mystery exists not to cloud the viewer's understanding of what the presumed intent for the film was to be, based on racial or gender based assumptions, and that result is a satisfying cinematic experience that lingers long after the end titles roll.