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Marlon Riggs
Marlon Riggs.jpg
Marlon Troy Riggs

(1957-02-03)February 3, 1957
DiedApril 5, 1994(1994-04-05) (aged 37)
Cause of deathComplications from AIDS
OccupationFilmmaker, educator
Partner(s)Jack Vincent

Marlon Troy Riggs (February 3, 1957 – April 5, 1994) was an American filmmaker, educator (professor), poet, and gay rights activist. He produced, wrote, and directed several documentary films, including Ethnic Notions,[1] Tongues Untied, Color Adjustment, and Black is... Black Ain't. Riggs created aesthetically innovative and socially provocative films that examine past and present representations of race and sexuality in America. The Marlon Riggs Collection is now housed at Stanford University Libraries.[2]

Early life

Riggs was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on February 3, 1957. He was a child of civilian employees of the military and spent a great deal of his childhood traveling. He lived in Texas and Georgia before moving to West Germany at the age of 11 with his family. He was the son of Jean (mother) and Alvin Riggs (father) and also had a sibling named Sascha.[3][4] Later in his life, Riggs recalled the ostracism and name-calling that he experienced at Hephzibah Junior High School in Hephzibah, Georgia. He stated that black and white students alike called him a "punk," a "faggot," and "Uncle Tom." He felt isolated from everyone at the school: "I was caught between these two worlds where the whites hated me and the blacks disparaged me. It was so painful."[5]

Riggs excelled at Nurnberg American High School, where he played football and ran track, and was elected President of the Varsity Club while only a sophomore. He also performed a solo interpretive dance in the school's talent show depicting American slaves' experiences from Africa through emancipation. From 1973 to 1974 Riggs attended Ansbach American High School's opening year in Katterbach, Germany. He was elected student body president at the military dependents school. In 1974, Riggs returned to the United States to attend college. As an undergraduate, he studied history at Harvard University and graduated magna cum laude in 1978.[4] While a student at Harvard, Riggs became conscious that he was gay.[6] Because there were no courses that supported the study of homosexuality, he petitioned the history department and received approval to pursue independent study of the portrayal of "male homosexuality in American fiction and poetry".[6] As he began studying the history of American racism and homophobia, Riggs became interested in communicating his ideas about these subjects through film.

After working for a local television station in Texas for about a year, he moved to Oakland, California, where he lived for 15 years with his life partner, Jack Vincent. Riggs entered graduate school[7] and received his master's degree in journalism with a specialization in Documentary film in 1981 from the University of California, Berkeley, having co-produced/co-directed with Peter Webster a master's thesis titled Long Train Running: The Story of the Oakland Blues, a half-hour video on the history of blues music in Oakland, California.[4]

Film career

Upon finishing graduate school, Riggs began working on many independent documentary productions in the Bay Area. He assisted documentary directors and producers initially as an assistant editor and later as a post-production supervisor, editor on documentaries about the American arms race, Nicaragua, Central America, sexism, and disability rights.[4] Because of his proficiency in video technology, Riggs was the on-line editor for a video production company, Espresso Productions. In 1987, Riggs was hired as a part-time faculty member at the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley to teach documentary filmmaking. He became the youngest tenured professor at Berkeley shortly thereafter.

That same year he completed his first professional feature documentary Ethnic Notions.[1] An independently produced documentary, the film received technical support (online editing) from KQED, a public television station in San Francisco, and aired on public television stations throughout the United States.[7] In Ethnic Notions, Riggs sought to explore widespread and persistent stereotypes of black people – images of ugly, savage brutes and happy servants – in American popular culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Edited by Debbie Hoffmann, the film uses a narrative voice-over provided by African-American actress Esther Rolle in explaining striking film footage and historical stills which expose the blatant racism of the era immediately following the Civil War. The documentary also presents a set of contemporary interviews with expert commentators, including historians George Fredrickson and Lawrence Levine, cultural critic Barbara Christian, folklorist Patricia Turner, collector Jan Faulkner, and many others, who discuss the consequences of historical African-American stereotypes. This film expanded the commonly held assumptions about the parameters of documentary film aesthetics through its bold use of original performance, dance, and music to explore a historical narrative.

While Riggs continued working as an educator at Berkeley, he kept making his own films. The 1989 film Tongues Untied, a highly personalized and moving documentary about the life experiences of gay African-American men, was aired as part of the PBS television series P.O.V.[8] The film employs autobiographical footage as well as performance, including monologues, songs, poems, and nonverbal gestures such as snapping, to convey an authentic and positive black gay identity. In order to demonstrate the harmful effects of silence on self-esteem, the film contrasts this image with negative representations of gay black men as comic-tragic stock caricatures and drag queens in contemporary American popular culture. The three principle voices of Tongues Untied are those of Riggs as well as gay rights activists and men infected with HIV Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam. Riggs characterized the film as his legacy, his "last gift to the community," that displays him as both a filmmaker and a gay rights activist. Tongues Untied was so controversial, that its airing was a major event; some local public TV stations refused to put it on the air, while others celebrated its creation and originality. "Tongues Untied," held political backlash; Republican Senator Jesse Helms famously argued to defund the arts after its release.[9] This documentary also paved the way for other films to come later such as Paris is Burning (1990). He described the production as his own personal "coming out" film celebrating black gay life experiences and that he ultimately became "the person, the vehicle, and the vessel" for these experiences.[10] Riggs explained that Tongues Untied was a catharsis for him: "It was a release of a lot of decades-old, pent-up emotion, rage, guilt, feelings of impotence in the face of some of my experiences as a youth. . . It allowed me to move past all of those things that were bottled up inside me. . . I could finally let go."[5]

In 1988, while working both on Color Adjustment and Tongues Untied, Riggs was diagnosed with HIV after undergoing treatment for near-fatal kidney failure at a hospital in Germany.[5] The film shows the pain as well as the mentally and physically agonizing therapy that Riggs had to go through in order to deal with his kidney failure. But despite his deteriorating health, Riggs decided to continue to teach at Berkeley and make documentaries.

In the short 1990 piece Affirmations, Riggs further developed his critique of homophobia that he originally expressed in Tongues Untied. In Affirmations, a film made from the outtakes of Tongues Untied, Riggs explored the African-American males' sexuality and relationship with the African-American community at large. Voice overs of gay African-American men described their feelings of isolation from a community in which they were once raised with love and support. Some of the men expressed the lack of acceptance within the African-American community and the divide their sexual orientation caused. They vocalized they wanted to identify as both gay and African American with support from family, friends, and the African-American community.[11] Riggs included a coming-out story of black gay writer Reginald T. Jackson and footage of black gay men marching in a Harlem African American Freedom Day Parade. In 1991, Riggs directed and produced Anthem, a short documentary about African-American male sexuality. The film includes a collage of erotic images of black men, hip-hop music, and a call to celebrate difference in sexuality.

In 1991, Marlon founded Signifyin' Works, a non-profit corporation whose mission is to produce films about African-American history and culture. The other founding Board of Directors included Herman Gray, Vivian Kleiman, Cornelius Moore, and Patricia Turner.

The 1992 documentary Color Adjustment was Riggs's second film to air on the PBS television series P.O.V.[8] The film Color Adjustment was Riggs's follow-up to Ethnic Notions, focusing on the representation of African Americans in American television from Amos 'n' Andy to the Cosby Show. However, unlike Ethnic Notions, which presents a putative, neutral stance on popular American representations of blacks, Color Adjustment presents a cultural criticism of these images through an African-American perspective on race.[12] The film was produced with Vivian Kleiman, edited by Debbie Hoffmann, and narrated by actress Ruby Dee. It includes an original music score by Mary Watkins. Using contemporary interviews of television actors, directors, producers, and cultural commentators, the documentary conveys personal reflections and academic analyses of such television programs as Good Times and The Cosby Show.

In 1992, Riggs directed the film [Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regret)], in which five gay Black men who are HIV-positive discuss how they are battling the double stigmas surrounding their infection and homosexuality. It was commissioned by Executive Producer Jonathan Lee as part of a series of documentaries on the AIDS crisis, The Fear of Disclosure Project. The series was screened in observation of World AIDS Day and Day Without Art. It included the participation of Phil Zwickler, David Wojnarowicz, Ellen Spiro, Vivian Kleiman, and others.

In 1993, Riggs received an honorary doctorate degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts.[13] That same year, Riggs's experimental short Anthem was featured in a collection of short films entitled Boys' Shorts: The New Queer Cinema.

Shortly after completing Color Adjustment, Riggs began work on what was to be his final film Black Is. . . Black Ain't, but he died at the age of 37 from complications caused by AIDS on April 5, 1994, before he could complete it.[3] The project was completed posthumously by co-producer Nicole Atkinson, co-director/editor Christiane Badgley, and the Signifyin' Works Board of Directors. Much of the final text of Black Is. . . Black Ain't was recounted by Riggs in his hospital room. "It was as if the film were rolling before me," he said, "and I was just transcribing; I almost couldn't keep up." The film therefore contains many scenes of Riggs on his hospital bed.[5] The documentary takes on the topic of African-American identity, including considerations of skin color, religion, politics, class stratification, sexuality, and gender difference that revolve around it. "In this film, Marlon Riggs meets a cross-section of African Americans grappling with the paradox of numerous, often contradictory definitions of blackness. He shows many who have felt uncomfortable and even silenced within the race because their complexion, class, sexuality, gender, or speech has rendered them "not black enough," or conversely, "too black." The film scrutinizes the identification of "blackness" with masculinity as well as sexism, patriarchy and homophobia in black America."


Besides making documentaries and teaching at Berkeley, Riggs also wrote poetry from time to time, as evidenced in Tongues Untied, which contains several of his poems about his life experiences as a black gay man. In his poem "Tongues Untied," Riggs discusses the racism he encountered as a child while living in Georgia as well as coming out about his homosexuality.[14] Riggs's poetry was inspired by friend, poet, and activist Essex Hemphill.[15]


Riggs's writings were published during the late 1980s and early 1990s in various art and literary journals such as Black American Literature Forum, Art Journal, and High Performance as well as anthologies such as Brother to Brother: Collected Writings by Black Gay Men. The themes of his writings include filmmaking, free speech and censorship, and criticism of racism and homophobia.

In his noteworthy essay "Black Macho Revisited: Reflections of a SNAP! Queen," Riggs discusses how representations of black gay men in the United States have been used to shape Americans' conceptions of race and sexuality. He argues that Americans' emphasis on the "black macho" figure – the warrior model of black masculinity based on a mythologized view of African history – signifies an exclusion of black homosexual males from the African-American community, which results in their dehumanization and rationalizes homophobia. Riggs makes a distinction between the black gay man's perception of himself and his representation in America as the "Negro faggot," an extreme displacement and distortion of black homosexuality. He explains that the "black macho" image is sustained through performances such as rap music, television shows, the films of Spike Lee, and the comedy routines of Eddie Murphy. According to Riggs, the black homosexual male is therefore defined as the deviant Other in relation to the African American community, and Riggs claims that this contemporary practice mirrors the historical racist constructions of the African-American identity: "Blacks are inferior because they are not white. Black gays are unnatural because they are not straight. Majority representations of both affirm the view that blackness and gayness constitute a fundamental rupture in the order of things, that our very existence is an affront to nature and humanity."[16]

Themes and style

Riggs's films deal with representations of race and sexuality in the United States. Riggs was critical of American racism and homophobia. He used his films to show positive images of African-American culture as well as those of physical and emotional love between black men in order to challenge representations of African Americans and black gay men in popular culture. However, he recognized that the images he conveyed would cause resistance among many Americans: "People are often frightened of difference. . . that requires that they rethink their own beliefs, their own premises, their own sense of self, culture and history, and sense of belonging. When you present anything on the level of contention, you encounter resistance."[5]

Riggs believed that being a filmmaker was a means to communicate his message, not an end in and of itself. Riggs explained that he did not become a filmmaker because he loved films as a child but because he wanted to communicate his message: "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. . . I wanted to communicate to the broadest possible audience and for me that was television."[4] Riggs strongly believed in speaking out about the topics he cared about through his films. He explained that whenever he became passionate about an issue, he could not stop himself from speaking out about it: "Silence kills the soul; it diminishes its possibilities to rise and fly and explore. Silence withers what makes you human. The soul shrinks, until it's nothing."[17]

As a graduate student at Berkeley, Riggs was educated in journalism and conventional documentary filmmaking, which stresses objectivity and employing an academic stance. But his film style quickly evolved to be rather personal and emotional. His first professional film Ethnic Notions, was composed of expert commentary, historical stills and film footage, and omniscient narration—standard elements for documentary films of the time. Yet at the same time, the film greatly departs from the norm of the day through its playful use of performance, satire and audio. Philip Brian Harper, an associate professor of English at New York University, explains that by challenging the norms of standard television documentary, Riggs was an innovator of television programming in America: "Riggs's work itself challenged television's generic boundaries. Riggs troubled broadcast convention, seen as implicitly under attack in the presentation of his work."[12]

According to Nichols, Marlon Riggs used the Performative Mode for films such as Anthem and Tongues Untied. His use of poetry and performance conveys the affective and emotion-laden quality of performative documentary.

Awards and Recognition

Riggs's documentaries have received much critical acclaim. Riggs received a National Emmy Award in 1987 for Ethnic Notions. Tongues Untied was awarded the Teddy Award at the Berlin Film Festival. The film also received recognition from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the New York Documentary Film Festival, the American Film and Video Festival, and the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. In 1992, Riggs was awarded the Maya Daren Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Film Institute. Additionally, Color Adjustment won the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award, Erik Barnouw Award from the Organization of American Historians, the International Documentary Association Outstanding Achievement Award, and a premiere screening the Sundance Film Festival. "Color Adjustment" also garnered a nomination for a national Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Research. Riggs also received the Frameline Award from the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival for his film Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regret). Moreover, Black is. . . Black Ain't won the Golden Gate Award at the San Francisco International Film Festival and was praised by the Sundance Film Festival.[13] Riggs also was awarded an honorary doctorate degree from the California College for the Arts & Crafts in 1993.

Alongside Riggs's many film awards he has also been given the honor to have a building for low-income housing dedicated in his name. There is a section of a housing unit named The Marlon Riggs Apartments / Vernon Street located in Oakland, California. In 1996 a plaque with a picture of Marlon was hung inside of the building's lobby area to commemorate Riggs. At the time the housing unit was the first building constructed for low-income people with HIV/AIDS. This property is funded through The John Stewart Company and was awarded $2 million for its construction to help people living with HIV/AIDS have a stable environment.[18]

In 2006, Riggs was awarded into the NLGJA LGBTQ Journalists Hall of Fame[19]

In 2014, Signifyin' Works donated $100,000 to create the Marlon T. Riggs Fellowship in Documentary Filmmaking at the UC Berkeley Journalism for graduate students in documentary film. It is the first Fellowship named for a documentary filmmaker at a university in the United States.[20]

In 2019, the 78th Annual Peabody Awards recognized Riggs and Tongues Untied on the 30th anniversary of its broadcast on public television.[21] Additionally, the Brooklyn Academy of Music featured Marlon Riggs's work with a show of Race, Sex & Cinema: The World of Marlon Riggs.[22]


During the late 1980s and early 1990s, Riggs's production Tongues Untied triggered a national controversy surrounding the airing of the video on American public television stations. Along with his own funds, Riggs had financed the documentary with a $5,000 grant from the Western States Regional Arts Fund, a re-granting agency funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency that provides funding and support for visual, literary, and performing artists. The film received much contention due to its depiction of men kissing.

News of the film's airing sparked a national debate about whether or not it is appropriate for the Federal government of the United States to fund artistic creations that offended some.[8] Artists stressed their basic right of free speech, of representation on public airwaves, and vehemently opposed censorship of their art. However, several right-wing United States government policymakers and many conservative watchdog groups were against using taxpayer money to fund what they believed were repulsive artistic works.[23] In the 1992 Republican presidential primaries, presidential candidate Pat Buchanan cited Tongues Untied as an example of how President George H. W. Bush was investing "our tax dollars in pornographic and blasphemous art." Buchanan released an anti-Bush television advertisement for his campaign using re-edited clips from Tongues United. The ad was quickly removed from television channels after Riggs successfully demonstrated Buchanan's copyright infringement.

Reverend Donald E. Wildmon, the president of the American Family Association, opposed PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts for airing Tongues Untied but hoped that the film would be widely released, because he believed most Americans would find it offensive. "This will be the first time millions of Americans will have an opportunity to see the kinds of things their tax money is being spent on," he said. "This is the first time there is no third party telling them what is going on; they can see for themselves."[24]

Riggs defended Tongues Untied for its ability to "shatter this nation's brutalizing silence on matters of sexual and racial difference." He explained that the widespread attack on PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts in response to the film was predictable, since "any public institution caught deviating from their puritanical morality is inexorably blasted as contributing to the nation's social decay." In his defense, Riggs claimed that "implicit in the much overworked rhetoric about 'community standards' is the assumption of only one central community (patriarchal, heterosexual and usually white) and only one overarching cultural standard to which television programming must necessarily appeal." Riggs stated that ironically, the censorship campaign against Tongues Untied actually brought more publicity to the film than it would have otherwise received and thus allowed it to achieve its initial aim of challenging societal standards regarding depictions of race and sexuality.[25]


  1. ^ a b see California Newsreel Archived 2011-11-06 at the Wayback Machine
  2. ^ "Marlon Riggs archive, including papers, videos, and personal items, 1957-1994 in SearchWorks catalog". Retrieved 2018-01-26.
  3. ^ a b "Marlon Riggs Dies; Film Maker Was 37". April 6, 1994. Retrieved 22 January 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d e Simmons, Ron. "Tongues Untied: An Interview with Marlon Riggs." Brother to Brother: Collected Writings by Black Gay Men. Ed. Essex Hemphill. Los Angeles: Alyson Publications, Inc., 1991. 189-199. Print.
  5. ^ a b c d e Avena, Thomas (April 1, 1994). Life sentences: writers, artists, and AIDS, Interview with Marlon Riggs. Mercury House. pp. 258–273. ISBN 978-1-56279-051-6.
  6. ^ a b Riggs, Marlon (Fall 1991). "Notes of a signifyin' snap! queen". Art Journal. 50 (3): 60–65. doi:10.1080/00043249.1991.10791462 – via EBSCO.
  7. ^ a b Gateward, Frances. "Riggs, Marlon." Film Reference. Advameg, Inc., 2011. 27 January 2011. Web.
  8. ^ a b c Mills, David. "The Director with Tongue Untied; Marlon Riggs, A Filmmaker Who Lives Controversy." Washington Post 15 June 1992. Print.
  9. ^ "We pay tribute to Professor and filmmaker MARLON RIGGS, who died Tuesday". Retrieved 2019-11-07.
  10. ^ Levasseur, Audrey. "Marlon Riggs's Legacy of Simple Truth (1957-1994)." Black Camera 9.1 (1994): 10-11. Print.
  11. ^ Riggs, Marlon (1992). "Affirmations". Retrieved 2017-11-20.
  12. ^ a b Harper, Phillip Brain. "Marlon Riggs: The Subjective Position of Documentary Video." Art Journal 54.4 (1995): 69-72. Print.
  13. ^ a b Deane, Pamela S. "Riggs, Marlon: U.S. Filmmaker." The Museum of Broadcast Communications. MBC, 2011. 27 January 2011. Web.
  14. ^ Riggs, Marlon. "Tongues Untied." Brother to Brother: Collected Writings by Black Gay Men. Ed. Essex Hemphill. Los Angeles: Alyson Publications, Inc., 1991. 200-205. Print.
  15. ^ "Interview with Marlon Riggs by Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage". Retrieved 2019-11-07.
  16. ^ Riggs, Marlon. "Black Macho Revisited: Reflections of a SNAP! Queen." Freedom in this Village: Twenty-Five Years of Black Gay Men's Writing, 1979 to the Present. Ed. E. Lynn Harris. New York: Avalon Publishing Group, Inc., 2005. 151-157. Print.
  17. ^ Moore, Teresa and Evelyn C. White. "Film Maker Marlon Riggs Does of AIDS: His 'Tongues Untied' video looked at gay black men." San Francisco Chronicle 6 April 1994. Print.
  18. ^ Lee, Henry K. (March 23, 1996). "Oakland Housing Complex Opens / East Bay's first affordable units for people with AIDS". SFGate. Retrieved 2017-12-09.
  19. ^ "NLGJA Hall of Fame - NLGJA". Retrieved 2019-11-07.
  20. ^ "The Marlon T. Riggs Fellowships". UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Retrieved 2019-12-03.
  21. ^ "Tongues Untied Tribute". The Peabody Awards. Retrieved 17 April 2020.
  22. ^ Alm, David. "Marlon Riggs, Icon Of Queer And Black Cinema, Celebrated In Brooklyn". Forbes. Retrieved 2019-11-07.
  23. ^ Goodman, Walter. "Review/Television; Growing Up Black and Homosexual in America." New York Times 15 July 1991. Print.
  24. ^ Prial, Frank J. “TV Film About Gay Blacks is Under Attack.” The New York Times 25 June 1991. Print.
  25. ^ Riggs, Marlon. "Tongues Re-Tied." Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices. Ed. Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996. 185-188. Print.

External links

This page was last edited on 22 September 2020, at 22:52
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