Born on February 3, 1957, in Fort Worth, TX; died on April 5, 1994, in Oakland, CA; son of a career officer in the U.S. military; domestic partnership, Jack Vincent, 1980?Education: Harvard University, BA, 1978; University of California at Berkeley, MA, 1981.?Memberships: Association of California Independent Public Television Producers; Bay Area Video Coalition; Black Gay Men United (Oakland, CA); Gay Men of African Descent (New York City).
Worked for television station in Texas, 1978-79; worked for various producers and directors in documentary film, with particular focus on public television production, 1981-87; producer, screen writer, and director, 1987-94; School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, part-time faculty member, 1980s-1990s.
Marlon Riggs made his name in a previously neglected field in film: the production of documentaries from a black gay male sensibility. Praised for their balance and style, his films display a technical skill and imaginative flair that have earned the respect of the filmmaking community at large. In addition, his treatment of controversial issues in a straightforward, documentary format has inspired considerable debate. Riggs's willingness both to be "out" about his sexual identity and to confront racism and homophobia through film strikes audiences differently according to their opinions about homosexuality and racial politics.
Went Through "Coming Out" Process
Like many children in military families, Riggs spent much of his childhood outside of the United States. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, on February 3, 1957, he lived there until the age of eleven, when his family moved to Georgia; soon after that, the Riggses relocated to West Germany. Riggs returned alone to the United States in 1974 in order to begin college at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At Harvard, he began the process of accepting his sexuality, a process known in gay communities as "coming out."
According to Riggs, learning to view his sexuality in a positive light was complicated for him as an African-American man in a racist culture. Riggs described his experiences in a poetic essay published in Out/look, a gay and lesbian quarterly magazine: "As an undergraduate at [Harvard], I was as much a prisoner as a student. Like most others, I had come there to learn, but foremost, I had come in search of community, of people like myself--the young, gifted, and Black.... I awakened, after I arrived, to the realization that I was also gay. And the reflection of myself that this new me suggested, this reflection I found nowhere. Worse, I believed it existed--nowhere.... Most days, at lunch and dinner, over the course of my freshmen year, I self-consciously surveyed the dining hall, steered a course beyond the anonymous rows of young white animated faces, among whom I clearly did not belong: moved further still beyond the cluster of 'Black Tables,'where I knew deep down, no matter how much I masqueraded, my true self would show and would be shunned; and sat, often alone, eating quickly, hurrying my exit from a room where all eyes, I felt, condemned me with unspoken contempt: misfit, freak, faggot...."
Things only seemed to get worse for Riggs during his junior year of college, as he told Out/look, "Beneath such judgment I did as millions have done before me and since: I withdrew into the shadows of my soul; chained my tongue; attempted, as best as I could, to snuff out the flame of my sexuality; assumed the impassive face and stiff pose of Silent Black Macho.... Yet in the middle of his senior year, despite the resistance he found among the faculty, Riggs pursued a dissertation topic that would give him a sense of history and a sense of identity. Again, he described this change in Out/look: "When nobody speaks your name, or even knows it, you, knowing it, must be the first to speak it. When the existing history and culture do not acknowledge and address you--do not see or talk to you--you must write a new history, shape a new culture, that will." This self-creation took the form of a dissertation about "the evolution of the depiction of male homosexuality in American fiction and poetry," which he wrote under the guidance of a graduate student teaching assistant, since none of the professors at the university were willing to take on the project.Chose a Career in Documentary Film
After he graduated with honors from Harvard in 1978, Riggs returned to Texas to work at a television station. In an interview for Brother to Brother, he told Professor Ron Simmons: "My parents and grandparents expected me to become a preacher. I didn't. I became a filmmaker and that's my platform, my podium, the pedestal from which I preach these days." Of the choice to make films per se, he said: "I didn't know anything about filmmaking when I decided to become a filmmaker. What drew me to film and video was that I wanted to communicate so much of what I was learning at Harvard. I was shocked by all the discoveries I came across when I studied American history, particularly when I found out about race relations and our legacy of black cultural achievement. It was shameful that I had never been exposed to such information before. It was a shock to realize that only a privileged few could get that kind of information, that kind of education. I didn't want to teach.... That's good work, but I wanted to communicate to the broadest possible audience and for me that was [through the medium of] television."
The job at the television station in Texas, however, didn't work out well because Riggs found himself confronted with immobilizing racism. He left Texas for California, where he earned a master's degree in journalism at the University of California at Berkeley in 1981. Immediately after, he began apprenticing himself to documentary filmmakers--particularly those working in public television--in order to learn his craft. By the time he began producing his own works in 1987, he had nine films to his credit, on which he had served variously as production assistant, editor, associate editor, post-production supervisor, and/or sound effects director.
Having already established a name for himself among producers and technicians in documentary film, Riggs continued to build on that reputation as he produced, directed, and wrote his own films, six of which appeared between 1987 and 1989. Two of these films--Ethnic Notions and Tongues Untied--have earned the highest regard and praise from filmmakers, black activists, and gay audiences. Simmons called Ethnic Notions a "masterpiece" and noted that it "establish[ed] Riggs as one of the foremost contemporary producers of historical video in documentary."
Although Ethnic Notions is a brutally challenging look at the images that have been used in American culture to reinforce racism from legal slavery through the late twentieth-century, it has been received with respect by white and African American audiences alike. In 1989 it won a series of prestigious awards, including the Individual Craft Award of Outstanding Achievement in Research in the national news and documentary category from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Showings at the San Francisco International Film Festival and at the American Film and Video Festival also brought awards.
Confronted Homophobia with Tongues Untied
Having confronted racism in Ethnic Notions, and having established a practice of voicing the concerns of communities that he felt had been silenced for too long, Riggs moved into even more controversial territory with Tongues Untied. In the words of Revon Kyle Banneker for BLK, the experimental Tongues Untied "unleashes the blackened voices of suppressed hunger, anger and aloneness." The frank discussion and portrayal of a black gay male identity kept the film from being aired on most public television stations and limited Riggs's funding to non-government sources. The film, however, enjoyed broad distribution at film festivals--gay, black, and mainstream--and earned its maker still more awards, including an outstanding merit award from the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame film/video competition. After its premiere at the American Film Institute's 1989 Video Festival, Tongues Untied also showed at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Cleveland International Film Festival. Since 1989 it appeared at countless festivals and series around the country and managed to air, usually in censored versions, on some public television stations.
Although Tongues Untied featured no explicit sex, it inspired controversy among white conservatives and black activists alike. While both racist and homophobic responses were predictable, the latter evoked more concern from Riggs. He told Banneker, "Straight blacks are willing to give me an award, but they don't want to talk much about homosexuality." But it is precisely this discussion, he asserted, that "they need." In another essay from Brother to Brother, Riggs explained why this discussion is needed: "I am a Negro Faggot, if I believe what movies, TV, and rap music say of me. Because of my sexuality, I cannot be Black.... I cannot be a Black Gay Man because, by the tenets of Black Macho, Black Gay Man is a triple negation. I am consigned, by these tenets, to remain a Negro Faggot. And as such I am game for play, to be used, joked about, put down, beaten, slapped and bashed, not just by illiterate homophobic thugs in the night, but by many of Black American culture's best and brightest."
In 1989, while making Tongues Untied, Riggs tested positive for HIV--which meant that he had contracted the virus that can cause AIDS, but did not yet have AIDS. He continued his filmmaking, turning out a documentary about the experiences of HIV positive gay black men entitled No Regrets in 1992, despite the onset of complications from the infection. He also produced Color Adjustment in 1991, the long-awaited sequel to Ethnic Notions. Color Adjustment was broadcast by PBS-TV in the summer of 1992 as part of the network's independent documentaries series P.O.V. Deeming the work "a thoughtful, engrossing essay on the history of television's portrayal of black people," Associated Press reporter Scott Williams noted that "there won't be any controversy over [Color Adjustment] simply because [Riggs] presents the virtually inarguable case that TV has ignored, distorted, assimilated and beatified black people but rarely depicted them honestly." Color Adjustment won the highest award in television: the George Foster Peabody Award.
Directed until Death
As the HIV virus ravaged his body, Riggs continued to work on his final film, Black Is...Black Ain't, a documentary examining the complex cultural forces that shape African-American identity from the time when, as Riggs said "being Black wasn't always so beautiful" to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. While filming Riggs grew sicker but maintained his part-time position on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley--teaching in the same department that granted him his masters--took on public speaking engagements, and continued to write until kidney failure and other problems confined him to a hospital bed. From his hospital bed, Riggs continued to direct and even appeared on camera.
Riggs succumbed to AIDS on April 5, 1994, at age 37 before he could finish the film. His co-producer Nicole Atkinson and editor/co-director Christiane Badgely used Riggs's notes as a guide to complete Black Is...Black Ain't seven months after his death. Riggs was survived by his life companion of 15 years, Jack Vincent.
In Black Is...Black Ain't Riggs commented from his hospital bed that "As long as I have work then I'm not going to die, cause work is a living spirit in me--that which wants to connect with other people and pass on something to them which they can use in their own lives and grow from." Ultimately, Riggs's work lives on, showing that his voice is stronger than his virus. He explained the importance of the persistence of his black gay voice in Out/look: "Whenever we speak the truths of our lives, our words must be more than mere words: Every time we speak, we must engage in the most radical--as in fundamental--form of self-affirmation. As communities historically oppressed through silence, through the power of Voice we must seize our freedom, achieve our fullest humanity."
Outstanding merit award and best experimental video, both from Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, for Tongues Untied, 1989; best performance award, Atlanta Film Festival, for Tongues Untied 1989; best documentary award, Berlin Film Festival, for Tongues Untied, 1989; Individual Craft Award of Outstanding Achievement in Research in the national news and documentary category, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, for Ethnic Notions, 1989; George Foster Peabody Award, for Color Adjustment, 1991; Maya Daren Lifetime Achievement Award, American Film Institute, 1991; Erik Barnouw Award and The International Documentary Association's Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award, both for Color Adjustment, 1992; National Endowment for the Humanities grant; National Endowment for the Arts grant.