Profile: Marlon Riggs (1957-1994)

Marlon Troy Riggs was an American filmmaker, educator, poet, and gay rights activist. Riggs created films that examine past and present representations of race and sexuality in the United States. The Marlon Riggs Collection is housed at Stanford University Libraries.

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. 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.”

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. While a student at Harvard, Riggs became conscious that he was gay. 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”. As he began studying the history of American racism and homophobia, Riggs became interested in communicating his ideas about these subjects through film.

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. 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.

That same year he completed his first professional feature documentary Ethnic Notions. 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. 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 1989 film Tongues Untied was aired as part of the television series P.O.V. The three principal voices of Tongues Untied are those of Riggs as well as gay rights activists and men infected with HIV Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam. Tongues Untied had political backlash; Republican Senator Jesse Helms famously argued to defund the arts after its release.

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. Despite his deteriorating health, Riggs decided to continue to teach at Berkeley and make documentaries.

In the short 1990 piece Affirmations, Riggs explored the African-American males’ sexuality and relationship with the African-American community at large. Some of the men expressed the lack of acceptance within the African-American community and the divide their sexual orientation caused. In 1991, Riggs directed and produced Anthem, a short documentary about African-American male sexuality.

In 1991, Marlon founded Signifyin’ Works, a non-profit that produces films about African-American history and culture.

The 1992 documentary Color Adjustment was Riggs’s second film to air on the PBS television series P.O.V.,  focusing on the representation of African Americans in American television from Amos ‘n’ Andy to the Cosby Show. 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.

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. 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 from the California College of Arts and Crafts. The 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. The project was completed posthumously by co-producer Nicole Atkinson, co-director/editor Christiane Badgley, and the board of birectors from Signifyin’ Works.

Riggs also wrote poetry, and Tongues Untied contains several of his poems about his life experiences as a black gay man.

Writings

Riggs’s writings were published during the late 1980s and early 1990s in various art and literary journals such as Black American Literature ForumArt Journal, and High Performance as well as anthologies such as Brother to Brother: Collected Writings by Black Gay Men.

In his 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.

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.

As a graduate student at Berkeley, Riggs was educated in journalism and conventional documentary filmmaking, which stresses objectivity and employing an academic stance. However his film style quickly evolved to be rather personal and emotional. Philip Brian Harper, an associate professor of English at New York University, stated that 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.”

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