PRINT Summer 2016


WHEN MARLON RIGGS DIED in April 1994, at the age of thirty-seven, he was immersed in making his fourth feature-length documentary. This final piece, Black Is . . . Black Ain’t (1995), a sweeping video essay on the manifold complexities of African American identity, was completed by his production team in the months following his death. Like many of his generation who developed AIDS, Riggs spent his last days in a hospital, as Black Is . . . Black Ain’t forthrightly reveals in several sequences that show the filmmaker, hooked up to machines, providing narration and commentary from his bed. In one such moment, he relates how, during a visit to the emergency room, he had dreams of Harriet Tubman appearing to him and leading him through a forest and across a river, a vision he interpreted as a sign that he needed to keep working through his adversity. This sense of urgency had gripped him since his HIV diagnosis five years earlier, but a decline in health had increased his determination. “Because of the likelihood that you could die at this moment,” Riggs explains on camera, “ AIDS forces you to deal with that and to look around you and say, ‘Hey, I’m wasting my time if I’m not devoting every moment to thinking about how can I communicate to black people so that we start to look at each other, we start to see each other.’”

At the time of his death, Riggs seemed poised to become one of America’s most important public intellectuals. The controversy surrounding the PBS broadcast of Tongues Untied (1989), his poetic and unapologetic portrait of black gay male existence, had pushed him to the center of the culture wars, where he quickly became a media spokesman for numerous constituencies at once: African Americans, gay men, people with AIDS—not to mention independent filmmakers. In recent years, however, Riggs has been pigeonholed as a historical figure, inextricably tied in both style and substance to the early 1990s. Yet his filmography retains all its power—and indeed gains new significance—when viewed today. He was committed to communicating profound and difficult subjects effectively to a broad public, and he found a way to do that without sacrificing either formal integrity or conceptual depth. Despite Riggs’s populist drive, his work nevertheless deserves to be understood alongside that of such radical practitioners of the essay form as Jean-Luc Godard and Harun Farocki; like his European counterparts, Riggs elaborated an ongoing politics of the image around a central ideological critique, analyzing the ever-shifting relations between representations of race and the realities they purport to depict. His greatest concern was to understand and demonstrate how the relational forces of such images could be used both to bind and to liberate. Crafted with a complex articulation of montage and carefully attuned to the meanings, both subtle and crude, that are hidden in plain sight in the iconography and objects of everyday life, Riggs’s visual essays still have many lessons to teach us.

When Riggs speaks of wanting black people to “start to look at each other . . . start to see each other,” the implication is that his community’s vision of itself had heretofore been warped and occluded by a media environment designed to cater to the majority. So it’s not surprising that his first solo directorial effort, Ethnic Notions (1987), is a necessarily uncomfortable investigation of the use of racial stereotype and caricature in American popular culture. Gathering examples from more than a century of advertising, children’s books, sheet music, product design, and the like, Riggs traces the genealogy of such racist archetypes as the red-kerchiefed mammy, the buffoonish “coon,” the violent brute, and the happily subservient Uncle Tom from their antebellum roots through the mid-1980s. While there were precedents for Ethnic Notions (a controversial 1968 CBS special titled Black History: Lost, Stolen or Strayed, narrated by a young Bill Cosby, looked at the history of stereotyped representations of African Americans in cinema, as did scholar Donald Bogle’s influential study Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, first published in 1973), Riggs looks beyond the movies to an expanded field of media and activities in which these elements of American visual culture originated and flourished. Produced after Riggs began teaching at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, Ethnic Notions presents its arguments in an efficient if familiar show-and-tell format, setting a series of artifacts against a dark background while a sound track of grim synth tones underscores the violence lurking behind their insidiously cheerful appearances.

Knowing that such hateful images were once common is one thing; confronting their grotesque faces directly, over and over again, is quite another. Viewers are forced to acknowledge how these banal visual slurs tenaciously perpetuate the most virulent tropes of American racism, and in doing so have continuously promulgated nineteenth-century myths into modern times. As Riggs states through actor Esther Rolle’s narration, artifacts such as these are not only reflections of “the history of our national conscience” but also active elements of a social apparatus meant to reinforce white supremacy. In a country organized around slavery at its inception, and officially or unofficially segregated throughout its history, Riggs argues, white Americans have been “bombarded” by millions of mass-produced caricatures of black people, while interactions between whites and blacks have simultaneously been severely bounded by social restrictions; it is in this vacuum that media representations become part of a system of psychological control. “These caricatures did as much harm as any lynch mob,” Rolle intones toward the film’s end. “True, their hurt was often indirect, yet because of this they left wounds that have proved far more difficult to heal.”

Still from Marlon Riggs’s Black Is . . . Black Ain’t, 1995, video, color, sound, 87 minutes. © Signifyin’ Works.

FOLLOWING THE SUCCESS of Ethnic Notions—which won an Emmy, screened at film festivals worldwide, and soon became a staple of American college courses—Riggs began work on Tongues Untied, the film for which he is perhaps best remembered. The original conception was relatively modest—initially, Riggs intended to create a short documentary on gay black poets. According to his producer and collaborator Vivian Kleiman, Riggs expected that the tape might only show at “the two gay bars in Oakland, and a few in San Francisco.” But during production, Riggs was diagnosed with HIV after nearly dying of kidney failure on a trip to Germany, and the experience radically altered his vision for the film. “It exploded, basically,” says Kleiman (interviewed in Karen Everett’s 1996 documentary on Riggs, I Shall Not Be Removed), and “Marlon went into a frenzy,” working deep into the night in the university’s editing facilities to complete the now wholly reimagined project. Riggs’s conceptual breakthrough was to use his own life story as the through line of the film, and expand its purview beyond poetry to black gay male identity as such. “I had intended this work specifically for black gay men,” he told an interviewer for the journal Release Print in 1990. “Making that very conscious, deliberate choice allowed me to be very free in terms of my structure, the form of what I wanted to say as well as how I was saying it . . . and not fear alienating an audience that may not understand the terms, or the rage, or the degree of sexual attraction.”

As announced in its title, Tongues Untied enacts the liberation of expression through both voice and image, juxtaposing music, performance, readings of poetry and personal histories, and documentary footage of everyday gay black lives to produce a cri de coeur at once individual and collective. The formation of identity through the development of subcultural languages and codes is a running theme, as evinced in a sequence explicating the many somatic styles and nonverbal meanings of “snapping” (whereby men use the thumb and forefinger “to read, to punctuate, to cut like a whip”) or in a segment mimicking phone-sex ads for an imaginary black gay male chat line where callers can connect with “banjee boys,” “versatile butch queens,” and “BGAs” (black gay activists). But such celebrations of a specifically gay black identity are situated in the context of the compounded oppression experienced by gay black men: individuals caught in the intersection of racism and homophobia. Thus, Riggs argues, gay black men are unable to feel full acceptance from either the greater gay male or black community, two worlds that might otherwise provide refuge from an often-hostile majority culture.

Relating episodes from his own life, Riggs intersperses his coming-of-age narrative with shots of white and black male mouths, videotaped in extreme close-up, repeating homophobic or racist slurs. Angled as if encroaching from either side, the disembodied lips crisscross the filmmaker’s face via Eisensteinian montage. “Cornered by identities I never wanted to claim,” Riggs states as the camera closes in on his eyes, “I ran, fast, hard, deep inside myself, where it was still, silent, safe, deception.” Near the end, Riggs confesses that he has found “a time bomb ticking in my blood,” and places his own portrait at the end of a montage of newspaper obituary photos, a visual litany of gay black men who have died from AIDS. Rather than implying that Riggs might become another statistic, the gesture is one of solidarity, like that of someone who has joined a movement; Riggs’s imagined death is thereby amplified, rather than diminished, by its typicality.

Caught up in the explosion of what critic B. Ruby Rich would soon dub the New Queer Cinema, Tongues Untied proved immensely popular at film festivals and even enjoyed a successful theatrical run at San Francisco’s Castro Theater, on a double bill with Isaac Julien’s queer meditation on poet Langston Hughes, Looking for Langston (1989). While the documentary mobilized an audience of gay black men, it also had wide crossover appeal. “It’s both changed and affirmed what I think was always in the back of my mind,” Riggs told Release Print, “that you can do work that is very particular and specific and yet it will appeal broadly . . . not because it’s been watered down and made palatable for a mass audience [but] because mass audiences are, in fact, made up of particulars. And those particulars often share parallels even though they’re distinct in their own right.” Riggs’s observations on Tongues Untied’s diverse audiences display his nuanced thinking on so-called mass media; for Riggs, the American public was hardly a single mass, but rather a congeries of various constituencies who could come to understand one another through empathetic analogies between each community’s disparate experiences.

Not all Americans, however, were empathetic. When PBS broadcast Tongues Untied in 1991—a bold choice considering its content, much less its nonlinear form—numerous affiliates refused to show Riggs’s film. Critical praise was tempered by sharp denunciations. A Washington Times critic argued that “this film belongs in the bawdy leather bars that litter such gay havens as Castro Street in San Francisco and Christopher Street in New York, but not on public television.” A writer for the Atlanta Constitution concurred, calling the film “without doubt the most explicit, profane program ever broadcast by a television network.” Jesse Helms famously attacked Tongues Untied during a Senate debate on PBS funding, and both the Christian Coalition and right-wing presidential candidate Pat Buchanan appropriated clips in their own promotional media. In a New York Times op-ed titled “Meet the New Willie Horton,” published on March 6, 1992, Riggs fired back, calling out right-wing use of Tongues Untied as another example in a long history of “ruthless exploitation of race and sexuality to win high public office.” Most readers of the time would have immediately understood the reference to Horton, an African American felon whose image had been employed by a pac supporting George H. W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign in a notorious attack ad aimed at Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis. This TV spot made the claim that Dukakis was soft on crime because Horton had committed rape during a weekend furlough from a Massachusetts prison while Dukakis was that state’s governor. “In that single ad, old racial taboos and racist anxieties found renewed expression and public resonance,” Riggs wrote.

The furor around Tongues Untied undoubtedly informed Riggs’s subsequent film, Color Adjustment (1991), a dexterous historical essay on the evolution of racial myths on network television from Amos ’n’ Andy to The Cosby Show. A sequel of sorts to Ethnic Notions, Color Adjustment looks at how African American depictions changed when America’s grand racial narrative switched, as Riggs puts it, from notions of exclusion and separation to those of inclusion and integration. While the creators of the artifacts seen in Ethnic Notions were long dead, and in many cases anonymous, a number of producers and actors from television’s past were still available for Riggs to interview circa 1990, and their responses prove revealing. White television producer Hal Kanter, who worked as a writer on Amos ’n’ Andy, relates how attending a speech by NAACP leader Roy Wilkins prompted him to create the single-working-mom sitcom Julia, the first American television show with a nonstereotypical black female lead. “I thought that I really owed to my black colleagues . . . some sort of apology for a lot of the things that we had done on Amos ’n’ Andy,” Kanter admits. Julia’s star, Diahann Carroll, speaks to the uneasy experience of the African American performer with a quote that echoes the title of the documentary. “I think that many of the minorities involved in this profession during that period are guilty of something that we had to do for survival, and that’s called adjustments,” she states. “We had to make adjustments in our mind constantly in order to stay away from . . . anger and ‘What’s wrong with me?’”

With its mix of archival clips and talking-head interviews, Color Adjustment displays none of the brash, often theatrical style of Tongues Untied, and, to someone casually tuning in, might seem to be a return to the more conventional format of Ethnic Notions. But as Color Adjustment sinks into its thesis, it becomes clear that this documentary works on intellectual and formal registers not found in standard entertainment profiles. Woven through the film’s anecdotal history of race and television, Riggs continues the theoretical investigations he had begun with Ethnic Notions. Some propositions are voiced directly, through Ruby Dee’s narration (Riggs’s use of Dee and Rolle as narrators is itself an intervention into the normal documentary form; documentaries rarely employ a female voice of authority, much less an African American woman’s voice). Other arguments are made visually, as when Color Adjustment simulates flipping through channels as a form of dialectical montage, with news footage of race riots giving way to the anodyne family comedy of Julia. Such tactics deftly demonstrate how competing images of black existence entered American homes at the time, “reality” battling with fiction to define the popular representation. But this conflict between images is never depicted as a simple dichotomy.

At certain points, Riggs overlays archival footage with text asking, “Is this ‘positive’?” The indeterminacy of this question culminates in a remarkable analysis of the classic Norman Lear sitcom Good Times, showing how, as the series grew in popularity, its focus shifted from a kind of kitchen-sink dramatization of inner-city realities to a much broader comedy centering on the buffoonish antics of the character J. J. (played by Jimmie Walker), whose catchphrase—“Dyn-o-mite!”—became part of popular slang. Here, Walker’s gangly gesticulations are slowed down and superimposed over images of dandyish nineteenth-century minstrels. The parallels are immediate and striking, like a return of the repressed, an unwelcome ghost of the past that remains difficult to exorcise.

Ultimately, Color Adjustment is not so much about the progress of TV’s social vision as it is about the persistence of stereotyping in an era of ostensible inclusion. In an interview for the PBS series POV, Riggs elaborates on this idea in a statement that should be considered at length:

So many of us grow up hearing about “we need more positive images”. . . of black people, of women, of sexual minorities—name it, you can pick the group. What do you really mean by “positive”? Because often, when you examine these so-called positive images, they’re nothing more than . . . an image that corroborates the self-image of the majority culture, of the people who feel themselves already privileged, empowered in the society. And the degree to which we as the oppressed minorities—whoever we are—resemble, try to imitate, and model ourselves after them, then we are “positive.” If we in any way deviate from that standard, or . . . if we challenge that standard, then we become “negative” images. And I think there’s a way in which those definitions of positive and negative serve in many ways to dehumanize us, and for me are as problematic as the more blatant racist caricatures of for instance the pretelevision age. . . . And television . . . often serves a purpose of crystallizing those so-called positive images which can be easily consumed by the majority and those within the minority who believe that the ticket to success is imitation of the majority.

Riggs’s rethinking of the nature of positive images is evident in his analysis of Frank’s Place, a comedy-drama that ran for a single season in the late ’80s; the series, set in a New Orleans restaurant, featured a broad range of African American characters of various classes, ethnicities, and outlooks and seemed dedicated to portraying its chosen milieu on its own terms, rather than attempting to play to a presumed white viewership. For Riggs, Frank’s Place provided an important model of how TV might move American culture forward in ways that the easily consumed Cosby Show did not. Riggs’s take on Frank’s Place is echoed in the outlook of Black Is . . . Black Ain’t, which likewise focuses on the numerous specificities of African American culture at a more granular level. In that sense, it continues the project of Tongues Untied in much the same way that Color Adjustment can be seen as a follow-up to Ethnic Notions. While Tongues Untied focused on the particular intersectionality of gay black identity, Black Is . . . Black Ain’t looks at the myriad subcultural permutations and categorical debates contained within the concept of “black,” examining phenomena like the Creole societies of Louisiana and the Sea Islands, historical shifts in self-naming, and the ’90s vogue for populist Afrocentricity. The commentators assembled by Riggs for this project constitute a veritable pantheon of African American scholars and artists: bell hooks, Angela Davis, Bill T. Jones, Michele Wallace, Cornel West, and others. While Black Is . . . Black Ain’t remains as conceptually vigorous as any of his other work, its form is just a bit baggy in comparison to the films completed during Riggs’s lifetime. His collaborators, no doubt, would have had trouble cutting out material as they finished, knowing that this film would be Riggs’s last. Then again, the big-tent looseness of Black Is . . . Black Ain’t contributes to its greater message. “I think all black people have to reconcile themselves to each other, to our differences, and we have to get over the notion that you can, that you can only be unified as a people as long as everybody agrees,” Riggs states on camera toward the end of his own film. “You know, we don’t achieve freedom by those means.”

Two decades later, we might debate what Riggs’s investigations into race and representation mean for the present moment. Perhaps some of Riggs’s hopes for media’s future have now been realized at the highest levels of mainstream entertainment, where far more limited images of African Americans have, in some instances at least, been replaced by more dynamic semiotic systems and more wide-ranging signifiers. But while Riggs’s thinking on the nature of African American identity as such may have clear parallels in contemporary culture, it’s a more complicated affair to link his theories on the relationship of race and mass media to newer technological developments. Riggs emerged within a broadcast model of television, and his critique centered on mainstream media’s lack of attention to the multiple subjectivities that its “mass” audience contained. But the primacy of that centralized system was already being dismantled during Riggs’s career: The proliferation of cable and satellite networks encouraged niche marketing, the spread of digital production tools dramatically expanded the field of independent media, and the rise of the World Wide Web engendered an even more intensively balkanized media public. We can only speculate on how Riggs might have brought his analytic powers to bear on the explosion of self-representation and community building that has taken place after social media.

Perhaps threads of Riggs’s legacy, however, can be found in work by a new generation of black diasporic writers and artists who have continued to grapple with such questions. One notable example of this continued investigation would be film critic Ashley Clark’s book Facing Blackness (2015), which provides a cogent reassessment of Spike Lee’s disturbing, oft-maligned media satire Bamboozled (2000), arguing that this shot-on-digital feature about a televised blackface minstrel show should now be seen as one of the director’s most central and important works. Likewise, artists Sondra Perry and Martine Syms have, in different ways, considered how African American identity functions in the digital age. Perry’s two-channel video installation Lineage for a Multiple-Monitor Workstation: Number One (2015), for instance, fragments and reimagines tropes and production elements of contemporary family videos into a stream of sounds and images that pop in and out of nested desktop windows. A similarly kinetic engagement with contemporary media production occurs in Syms’s video A Pilot for a Show About Nowhere (2015), which investigates the contemporary relationship between television, viewership, and blackness in the ShondaLand era, and thinks about shows such as Sanford and Son and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for historical comparison. Many of Syms’s concerns parallel those of Riggs, though for Syms television now must function in relationship to the newer media that have challenged its power. “I hate Empire because it’s written for an audience that isn’t familiar with black life,” Syms states in an essay sharing the same title as her video, echoing a critique that Riggs might have made. “Twenty years from now we’ll see this televisual moment is as complex as the 1980s were, when The Cosby Show was framed by the crack epidemic and the welfare queen. What’s the relationship between #Ferguson and Empire’s Cookie?” Keeping track of the forces at play in the gap between representation and reality clearly remains a necessity. As Riggs put it in Color Adjustment in a statement that’s as resonant now as it was in the ’90s:“African Americans have claimed a high profile in this commerce of pop culture. But what have we bought and what have we traded?”

Ed Halter, a founder and director of Light Industry in New York, teaches as critic in residence at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY.