February 3, 1957 – Marlon Riggs
Riggs was a filmmaker who won Emmy and Peabody Awards for his documentaries on gay black men. He began making films in 1982 after receiving his master’s degree from Harvard University, and quickly gained national recognition. Several of his films were shown on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service).
Ethnic Notions is a film about black stereotypes. Color Adjustment (1986), a look the evolution of television’s early portrayal of blacks from 1948 until 1988, when they are suddenly depicted as prosperous and as having achieved the American dream, a portrayal that is inconsistent with reality, won a Peabody. Tongues Untied (1989) is an autobiographical study of gay black sexuality. It was attacked by critics who objected to its graphic content and to the fact that Riggs had received a $5,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). His other films about the queer African-American experience include No Regret (1992) and Anthem (1991).
In the last months of his life, when Riggs was dying of AIDS, he brought a film crew into his room at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley and became a character in one of his own films. Riggs to the camera:
If I have work, then I’m not gonna die. ‘Cause work is the living spirit in me, that which wants to connect with other people, and pass on something to them they can use in their lives.
The film is Black Is… Black Ain’t (1994), a powerful, inevitably sad documentary about Riggs’ last year on this astral plain. It is a final cry against the injustices that defined his work and his life.
Jack Vincent, who was Riggs’ partner of 15 years, claims that hospital sequence best captures the essence of Riggs:
At one point, Marlon chided me and said, ‘You know I’m not going to die until Black Is… is finished’. I said, ‘How do you know?’ And he said, ‘I just feel it’.
In 1994, when Riggs died at 37 -years-old, Black Is… was little more than half-finished. Before he was gone, he had seen it and made comments and left detailed directions. To fulfill Riggs’ vision, co-director Christiane Badgley and editor Bob Paris were left to complete the task.
The son of an Army dad, Riggs grew up in Fort Worth and Germany, went to Harvard on a scholarship and began his film career while earning a master’s degree in journalism at UC Berkeley. In 1989, he made his signature work, Tongues Untied, his controversial, passionate look at the lives of black gay men, told with poetry, dance and music.
Black Is . . . Black Ain’t continues with the the themes of Tongues Untied. Using music, performance, personal stories and testimony from cultural critics Angela Davis and Cornel West, Riggs challenged the search for a “definitive” black identity. By discouraging a variety of identities, he argues, and excluding people by class, gender and sexual preference, the African-American community perpetuates its own disenfranchisement. Riggs used his identity as a black gay man, and the exclusion he felt from the African-American community, to look at a complex situation within the black community.
Riggs’ film work extended his life beyond the expectations of his doctors. In 1989, when he was working on Tongues Untied, Riggs was diagnosed with AIDS and experienced kidney failure. At the time, no one thought that Tongues Untied would be finished, let alone know that Riggs would go on to make other films. Throughout his life, Riggs had phenomenal concentration. He’d get up at 4 or 5 a.m. to work. When he died, Vincent said:
I lost my best friend and my lover and my partner all at the same time. He was a hero to a lot of people, and a hero to me, too. He chose to work in the media because that was a way to reach people: He had a sense of obligation to the larger community.
Riggs drew together the central concerns of his work: dignity for gays and lesbians, harmony within the black community, affirmation for the dispossessed. He wanted a black community that could come together and heal itself, to be strong and grow, and to find strength in their diversity.
Tongues Untied caused a national controversy with the airing of the film on public television stations. Riggs had financed the documentary with a $5,000 grant from the Western States Regional Arts Fund, funded by the NEA, an independent federal agency that provided funding and support for visual, literary, and performing artists. The P.O.V. television series on PBS, which broadcast Tongues Untied, also received $250,000 from the NEA. Politicians were outraged by its depiction of men kissing.
News of the film’s airing sparked a national debate about whether the Federal government should be in the business of funding artistic creations that offended some. Artists stressed their right of free speech, LGBTQ people demanded representation on public airwaves, and many vehemently opposed censorship of their art. Many right-wing policymakers and conservative groups were against using taxpayer money to fund what they believed were repulsive artistic works. 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 Untied. The ad was quickly removed from television channels after Riggs called out Buchanan’s copyright infringement.
The charming Reverend Donald E. Wildmon of the American Family Association opposed PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts for airing Tongues Untied but lobbied for the film to be widely released, because he believed most Americans would find it offensive. Wildmon:
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. This is the first time there is no third party telling them what is going on; they can see for themselves.
Riggs defended Tongues Untied, declaring that the film would “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.” 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 publicly recognized that, ironically, the censorship campaign against Tongues Untied 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.
Riggs talked about the ostracism and name-calling as a kid. He stated that black and white students both called him a “punk,” a “faggot,” and “Uncle Tom.” Riggs:
I was caught between these two worlds where the whites hated me, and the blacks disparaged me. It was so painful.
While he was a studying at Harvard, Riggs accepted that he was gay. Because there were no courses that supported the study of homosexuality, Riggs petitioned the history department and received approval to pursue independent study of the portrayal of “Male homosexuality in American fiction and poetry”. Riggs studied the history of American Racism and Homophobia, and he decided that he could best communicate his ideas through film.
2019 marks the 30th anniversary of Tongues Untied, and 25 years since Riggs left this world. Starting February 6 there will be an eight-day retrospective of his work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) that will then travel around our pretty planet.