Respect and Love for Marlon Riggs

A wee bit o’ cheer, courtesy of Marlon Riggs and the Institute of Snap!thology…

… that’s spurring me to write up an overview of something far deeper and more complex. This “Snap Diva” sequence is one of the more lighthearted scenes from Tongues Untied, a powerful independent film by activist/educator/filmmaker/author Marlon Riggs. The clip was sent to me earlier today by an old friend as an offhandedly affectionate “haaaay”, but it ended up triggering intense memories of watching Riggs’ films on PBS over a decade ago. I was bowled over by them at the time; I’m overjoyed to be reminded of them again.

Riggs died of AIDS in 1994 while still struggling to complete his final film, Black Is…Black Ain’t. An intensely personal, well-researched examination of the diversity of African-American identities, Black Is…Black Ain’t was completed by Riggs’ colleagues after his death, and released posthumously in the mid 90s. “His camera traverses the country, bringing us face to face with Black folks young and old, rich and poor, rural and urban, gay and straight, grappling with the paradox of numerous, often contested definitions of Blackness.” [via]

Riggs was a giant of public television during the late 80s and early 90s, and a truly inspiring force for positive change. Via glbtq:

Riggs’ experience of racism began in his segregated childhood schools but continued even at Harvard, where he studied American history, graduating with honors in 1978. He then earned an M. A. in 1981 at the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he later taught documentary film courses.

Riggs first gained recognition for writing, producing, and directing the Emmy-winning, hour-long documentary Ethnic Notions (1987), which explored black stereotypes and stereotyping. The film helped establish Riggs’ career as a contemporary historical documentary producer.

But most of his later films and writings probe the dichotomy Riggs perceived between the strong, “Afrocentric” black man and the black “sissy” gay man. As a “sissy” himself, Riggs felt deeply his status as a pariah within the black community.

Tongues Untied (1989), Riggs’ most famous film, is an extensively reviewed and critically acclaimed documentary that met with controversy in conservative circles when it was aired on public television. Funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant, it figured in the cultural wars over control of the NEA and the Public Broadcasting System.

But quite apart from the controversy it stirred when it was first broadcast, the film remains a groundbreaking exploration of black male sexuality, incorporating poetry, personal testimony, performance art, and rap as a means of exposing the homophobia and racism rampant in the lives of black gay men.

His activism extended to writing on censorship issues and serving on the national PBS’s policy committee and panels such as the National Endowment for the Arts. He consistently criticized both the racism of the majority white gay community and the homophobia of the African-American community.

Further information about him and his indispensable body of work:

7 Responses to “Respect and Love for Marlon Riggs”

  1. Liebe Says:

    I know this might sound strange, but I love that coilhouse will write about a topic like this.

    In general, it’s hard to find a blog or sector of this community (by that, I mean, people that like the things coilhouse does) that doesn’t completely ignore anything by people of color. So, as a POC, you go through blogs of purposefully pale, pretty people that seem to not know you exist, but that like the things you do. So, you keep reading anyway and exist in the margins.

    I worried that when this video came out that it would just make the rounds as something to laugh at, and not as part of the wonderful documentary you detailed.

    Anyway… it’s appreciated.

  2. Mer Says:

    Oops! The first draft of this briefly went up with a factual error– that first Snap Diva clip’s from Tongues Untied, not BI…BA. Forgive me, I watched both films a very long time ago. Eez fixxored nao.

  3. Mer Says:

    Liebe, thank you. Generally, we try to keep everything as diverse and inclusive as we can around here. There’s always room for improvement, of course, but yeah… these are things the entire staff actively discusses and thinks about.

    Y’know, initially, I also felt a bit concerned that the “Snap!” clip might end up being snickered at. But then again, even taken out of context, Riggs’ presentation keeps the divas out of easy-to-dismiss territory. It’s that signature blend of deep intelligence, self-awareness, and playfulness. Gah. I’m so inspired by him.

  4. SA Says:

    I can’t watch this clip without thinking of it in context – the monologue about being turned away at a gay club, the “punk/homo/faggot/Uncle Tom” piece. “Tongues Untied” taught me in a visceral way that there is no “lesbian and gay community,” there are multiple communities, and they follow the same rules of interlocking oppressions and privileges that the straight world does. It kills me that we have all the Riggs documentaries we’ll ever have.

  5. Jeromey Says:

    I always felt like I was going through an identity crisis until I found Marlon Riggs. There was one point in my life where I was extremely suicidal because I didn’t want to live in a world where I couldn’t be myself. I’m Belizean American so I never grew up with the idea of “preserving my blackness.” I grew up in a totally different culture and plus I was a black girl with a Latin last name which raised too many annoying questions. I was a really eccentric kid and every one, especially in my community, thought I was a psycho. I was teased a lot! My family were pretty crappy so I kept myself busy by reading; which is pretty much the cause of my eccentricity. I sometimes hated watching TV as a kid because it always confused me. I kept thinking is there something wrong with me, am I not suppose to act like this. I was never “black” enough. At a young age I decided I want to be a filmmaker because I was tired of being overshadowed. I was skeptical at first because I didn’t want to be forced to make more “black films,” but I’m going to stick to what I love and what I know best.

    I always felt like there was so much more to me than what was being portrayed in the media. I’m hoping to one day change that because things have to change. There are people of color who appreciates the alternative culture and I want my work to represent those people.

    This article makes me appreciate Coilhouse even more….. : )

  6. Mer Says:

    Gah! Jeromey! I don’t know what to say except thank you for being here, and for reading, and for being amazing. HYOOOGE hugs.

  7. Jeromey Says:

    Thanks Mer! : )