Wanda (Loden 1970) and Tongues Untied (Riggs 1989) use performance to very different effect. While one is fiction and the other documentary (by way of avant garde art performance), both hold some aspect of documentary in them. For Loden, the documentary, realistic style is based from performance, while Riggs’ performances are theatrical and over-the-top, played directly to the camera as an audience rather than an object.
Wanda uses real people as actors for all but the two main characters. The acted performances are carefully constructed, so naturalized that the audience forgets that they are watching fiction rather than some strange documentary about the inner lives of criminals with nothing to lose and not much to gain. Barbara Loden’s Wanda moves through her life not as a participant, but rather as someone who has to keep moving or else she will be left to die. Before she meets Mr. Dennis, she moves around her home town, going from place to place, hitching rides from one-night-stands. Her face is blank and emits little emotion except for at the end of the film, when she finds out that Mr. Dennis was shot to death inside the bank he was robbing. Wanda is the opposite of Faye Dunaway’s engaged and wily Bonnie from Bonnie and Clyde (Penn 1969)—instead, Wanda is the real Bonnie, a woman who is poor, has nowhere to go, and latches onto the first man who won’t ditch her by the side of the road (which we see happen with her first one-night-stand). There’s an early scene in Bonnie and Clyde where Clyde (Warren Beatty) tells Bonnie to fix her hair; there’s a scene in Wanda that is almost exactly the same. Both characters obey their male counterparts without complaint or any sort of autonomy.
Tongues Untied uses performance and theatricality as a means to make the audience uncomfortable, projecting anger and pain through poetry, dance, and spoken word. There is a heightened awareness of the actors’ bodies and voices, particularly because the performers are always aware that they are in front of the camera. They direct their gaze towards the camera, confronting the audience head on. The men look the audience in the eye and demand its attention. One such instance is when a group of gay black men in a studio perform different versions of the ‘snap,’ a form of non-verbal expression that was developed by gay black men—which has been brought into mainstream culture to the point that Michelle Tanner of 90s sitcom Full House was doing it. The men in this scene look straight at the audience and snap, joking with us and interacting with the audience on a level that is rarely seen.
Both pieces want to show the audience the truth—how they accomplish this are extremely different. Wanda does this through method acting, where Tongues Untied forces the audience to acknowledge the truth through exaggeration and theatricality.