Marlon Riggs achieved an extraordinary amount in a short 37 years.

Essential SF: Marlon Riggs

Dennis Harvey November 15, 2010

Two decades ago, in post-Reagan America, the arts were under fire—one lit by a very particular religious right match. Feeling the heat was the National Endowment for the Arts, a then 25-year-old institution already pretty pitifully funded by comparison with most other developed nations’ governmental arts support. But the small portion of NEA grants that helped avant-garde or otherwise edgy art—as opposed to, say, the local Gilbert & Sullivan society or annual craft fair—provided plenty of opportunities for righteous outrage. No matter that these alleged threats to national morality fingered would scarcely have been seen if not for the red-alert spotlight conservatives cast upon them.

[Editor's note: Riggs was honored posthumously along with other vital Bay Area film luminaries and institutions in Presents Essential SF November 8 at the Lab. More at]

In ’89 the American Family Association’s ever-vigilant Donald Wildmon seized upon Andres Serrano’s photograph “Piss Christ” as promoting “anti-Christian bigotry.” Later that year a museum was forced to cancel an exhibit by another photographer, Robert Mapplethorpe—who had just died of AIDS—which Republican Senator Jesse Helms, political gadfly Pat Buchanan, Christian leader Pat Robertson and others decried for its homoerotic imagery. The year 1990 brought the forced de-funding of “NEA Four” Holly Hughes, Karen Finley, John Fleck and Tim Miller, three gay (plus one gay-positive) performance artists whose works often railed against oppressive cultural forces.

One of the ugliest such tempests was yet to come. In July, 1991, the PBS documentary showcase POV showed Tongues Untied, a video essay about being African American and gay by Oakland-based filmmaker Marlon Riggs. It had been winning awards, playing festivals and some theatrical runs for two years already. But Tongues’ national broadcast—even if one-third of PBS affiliates refused to run it—incited a furor of name-calling and controversy. It also drove into the open a more constructive conversation about race, gender and sexual identity that continues within and around the Black community today.

For all that and more, we have Marlon Riggs—sole posthumous recipient of San Francisco Film Society’s first Essential SF awards to veteran local visionaries—to thank. He died 16 years ago, leaving a small body of work that perhaps isn’t as well known these days as it would have been if it his career hadn’t been cut short so early, at age 37. But its lasting influence and relevance is incalculable. His art was a series of radical acts that were both overdue and ahead of their time. If he hadn’t made them first, would we still be waiting for someone to take their risks?

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Marlon T. Riggs grew up a happy, loved and popular child. At age 11, however, his military stepfather was reassigned and the family moved to Georgia. There, Marlon had a rude awakening. As detailed in the 1996 documentary by writer Karen Everett, I Shall Not Be Removed: The Life of Marlon Riggs, hostile whites race-baited him for being enrolled in a program for the academically advanced—while fellow Blacks called him “uppity” and an “Uncle Tom” for the same. Ironically, when the family moved again, this time to a U.S. base within lily-white Germany, Marlon was accepted and popular once again. He was eventually granted full scholarship to Harvard.

He may have been drawn to documentary filmmaking as a tool to share all the exciting things he was learning—in particular about African American culture, history and identity—with a wider audience than had access to the hallowed halls of academia. Producing with Peter Webster a documentary about blues music, Long Train Running, as his master’s thesis at UC Berkeley  whet that appetite further. Its winning an American Film Institute prize didn’t hurt, either.

The year 1987 was an eventful one for Riggs: Now based in Oakland, he was hired as a professor by UC Berkeley’s School of Journalism, and completed his first feature documentary as writer/director. Ethnic Notions had a hard time finding funders: As a “history of ethnic caricature and stereotype in America,” it critiqued a parade of derogatory images ("mammies" and others) that now embarrassed their erstwhile white consumers, while most Blacks preferred such horrors be buried and forgotten. Nonetheless, the end result won an Emmy and became a cultural-studies classroom staple.

Riggs next considered building a short around the poetry of his friend, gay African American Essex Hemphill. But a sudden bout of kidney failure and the discovery that he was HIV-positive made him re-think the project in more ambitious and personal terms. Time now seemed finite, and, he was quoted as saying in Everett's documentary, “I began to see the consequences of silence.”

Thus Tongues Untied would break that silence, and then some, from and around Black gay men—demanding they be seen, acknowledged, no longer marginalized by their own communities for being who they are. (“So which are you? Black or  gay?”) Tongues didn’t just tell stories or recite poems (Hemphill’s and others’) about racism, gay bashing, being “invisible” to mainstream culture, the church’s mixed messages, love, sex, pain and empowerment. It also sang, danced, rapped, vogued; mixed first-person autobiography and staged vignettes; called out homophobia in popular black culture, using clips of Eddie Murphy onstage and from Spike Lee’s School Daze.

It elected to counter the silence that was “a way to grin and bear shield, my cloak,” but also a denial of self. The end was triumphant: Riggs in closeup proclaiming “Whatever awaits me, this much I know: I was blind to my brother’s beauty, and now I see my own,” followed by the onscreen text ““Black men loving Black men is THE revolutionary act.”

Tongues Untied could hardly have been a bigger event for African American gay men, many of whom felt their lives changed by the very public recognition and affirmation it offered. But it also provided a big target for those made uncomfortable by its mere existence, by its bold insistence that a minority within a minority be heard. Focusing on the film’s paltry $5,000 grant (given by the NEA to an institution that then disbursed money to Riggs) to brand then-President George Bush the first as asleep at the wheel and insufficiently conservative, Pat Buchanan took the Congressional floor to call it “pornographic and blasphemous.” Bible thumper Pat Robertson was shocked at its being “so sexually explicit” and flaunting “full frontal nudity,” prompting actual Tongues viewers to wonder if they’d somehow missed those parts.

Many heterosexual Black leaders took pains to distance themselves from the film’s messages, particularly those questioning community attitudes toward masculinity and AIDS. Even some Black gays found fault with Riggs himself—when it emerged that his longtime partner Peter Jack Vincent was white (many assumed from Tongues' poster and staged physical intimacies that Hemphill was his lover), he was accused of living hypocritically. Yet Riggs tirelessly, graciously defended himself and his work on variably welcoming TV, lecture, panel, university and other forums.

He’d been wary of exposing himself so completely, on film and off. But the experience was exhilarating and liberating as well as challenging. When after a couple similarly personal shorts he took on another large project, its relatively mainstream nature was hard, he said, after not feeling “bound by any of the usual kinds of restraints in documentary filmmaking” with Tongues Untied.

In a sense almost a sequel to Ethnic Notions—which had stopped more or less at the dawn of the television age—the two-part Color Adjustment was a history of African American portrayals (or their frequent lack) on TV. From buffoonish Amos 'n' Andy (whose broadcast version had to be recast, because the radio stars had been white) to the fully assimilated Cosby Show, it asked “Is this a positive image?” What imagery reflected reality? What reality did Black viewers, the entire broadcast audience, artists, networks and advertisers want to see reflected? The answers were qualified, and complicated—it’s unsurprising that Cosby himself did not consent to be interviewed for this provocative, quizzical overview. But Color Adjustment won Riggs wide acclaim, including a prestigious 1991 Peabody Award.

By this time Riggs was in and out of hospitals, dogged by falling T-cells and failing health. Yet he continued a full teaching schedule as one of the youngest tenured professors at Berkeley. (Among the many students he inspired was localite Sam Green of Oscar-nominated The Weather Underground and recent San Francisco International Film Festival “live cinema” event Utopia in Four Movements.) He also had a last passion project he was determined to leave as his legacy statement. Black Is...Black Ain’t—which was finally completed soon after his April, 1994, death by his co-director Christiane Badgley, co-director Nicole Atkinson and crew—is about Blackness itself, in all its thorniness and complexity.

Extraordinarily encompassing, the 87-minute feature free-ranged nimbly over terrain personal, political and theoretical. From the meaning of skin pigment gradations to Black women’s relationship to feminism; from Riggs singing in his sickroom bed to his mother’s inimitable gumbo recipe; from Civil Rights struggles to the concept of “not being Black enough” in language, education or lifestyle. Friends/colleagues like Alice Walker, Bill T. Jones, bell hooks and Cornel West appeared, their insights seamlessly woven into a tapestry that was, again, ultimately autobiographical. That Riggs saw it as his epitaph is borne out near the film’s end when he says, “My own personal legacy would be one of faith...that we will come through adversities, whatever they might be. Here, the adversity is really our ability to obtain a sense of communal self.”

Constantly reaching out through his medium to build community, Marlon Riggs did groundbreaking work in more conventional documentary forms that alone would be enough to secure his enduring importance chronicling African American history and identity. But it’s his most personal efforts, shorts like Anthem as well as the larger Tongues Untied and Black Is...Black Ain’t, that will remain indelibly original works of art—ones that move beyond reportage and analysis, into the cinematic mapping of an individual and collective soul.

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