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Riggs, Marlon 1957–1994

Marlon Riggs 19571994

Documentary filmmaker

Went Through Coming Out Process

Chose a Career in Documentary Film

Confronted Homophobia With Tongues Untied

Directed until Death

Selected works

Sources

Marlon Riggs made his name in a previously neglected field in film: the production of documentaries from a black gay male sensibility. Praised for their balance and style, his films display a technical skill and imaginative flair that have earned the respect of the filmmaking community at large. In addition, his treatment of controversial issues in a straightforward, documentary format has inspired considerable debate. Riggss willingness both to be out about his sexual identity and to confront racism and homophobia through film strikes audiences differently according to their opinions about homosexuality and racial politics.

Went Through Coming Out Process

Like many children in military families, Riggs spent much of his childhood outside of the United States. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, on February 3, 1957, he lived there until the age of eleven, when his family moved to Georgia; soon after that, the Riggses relocated to West Germany. Riggs returned alone to the United States in 1974 in order to begin college at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At Harvard, he began the process of accepting his sexuality, a process known in gay communities as coming out.

According to Riggs, learning to view his sexuality in a positive light was complicated for him as an African-American man in a racist culture. Riggs described his experiences in a poetic essay published in Out/look, a gay and lesbian quarterly magazine: As an undergraduate at [Harvard], I was as much a prisoner as a student. Like most others, I had come there to learn, but foremost, I had come in search of community, of people like myselfthe young, gifted, and Black I awakened, after I arrived, to the realization that I was also gay. And the reflection of myself that this new me suggested, this reflection I found nowhere. Worse, I believed it existednowhere. Most days, at lunch and dinner, over the course of my freshmen year, I self-consciously surveyed the dining hall, steered a course beyond the anonymous rows of young white animated faces, among whom I clearly did not belong: moved further still beyond the cluster of Black Tables, where I knew deep down, no matter how much I masqueraded, my true self would show and would be shunned; and sat, often alone, eating quickly, hurrying

At a Glance

Born on February 3, 1957, in Fort Worth, TX; died on April 5, 1994, in Oakland, CA; son of a career officer in the U.S. military; domestic partnership, Jack Vincent, 1980. Education: Harvard University, BA, 1978; University of California at Berkeley, MA, 1981.

Career: Worked for television station in Texas, 1978-79; worked for various producers and directors in documentary film, with particular focus on public television production, 1981-87; producer, screen writer, and director, 1987-94; School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, part-time faculty member, 1980s-1990s.

Memberships: Association of California Independent Public Television Producers; Bay Area Video Coalition; Black Gay Men United (Oakland, CA); Gay Men of African Descent (New York City).

Awards: Outstanding merit award and best experimental video, both from Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, for Tongues Untied, 1989; best performance award, Atlanta Film Festival, for Tongues Untied 1989; best documentary award, Berlin Film Festival, for Tongues Untied, 1989; Individual Craft Award of Outstanding Achievement in Research in the national news and documentary category, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, for Ethnic Notions, 1989; George Foster Peabody Award, for Color Adjustment, 1991; Maya Daren Lifetime Achievement Award, American Film Institute, 1991; Erik Barnouw Award and The International Documentary Associations Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award, both for Color Adjustment, 1992; National Endowment for the Humanities grant; National Endowment for the Arts grant.

my exit from a room where all eyes, I felt, condemned me with unspoken contempt: misfit, freak, faggot.

Things only seemed to get worse for Riggs during his junior year of college, as he told Out/look, Beneath such judgment I did as millions have done before me and since: I withdrew into the shadows of my soul; chained my tongue; attempted, as best as I could, to snuff out the flame of my sexuality; assumed the impassive face and stiff pose of Silent Black Macho.

Yet in the middle of his senior year, despite the resistance he found among the faculty, Riggs pursued a dissertation topic that would give him a sense of history and a sense of identity. Again, he described this change in Out/look: When nobody speaks your name, or even knows it, you, knowing it, must be the first to speak it. When the existing history and culture do not acknowledge and address youdo not see or talk to youyou must write a new history, shape a new culture, that will. This self-creation took the form of a dissertation about the evolution of the depiction of male homosexuality in American fiction and poetry, which he wrote under the guidance of a graduate student teaching assistant, since none of the professors at the university were willing to take on the project.

Chose a Career in Documentary Film

After he graduated with honors from Harvard in 1978, Riggs returned to Texas to work at a television station. In an interview for Brother to Brother, he told Professor Ron Simmons: My parents and grandparents expected me to become a preacher. I didnt. I became a filmmaker and thats my platform, my podium, the pedestal from which I preach these days. Of the choice to make films per se, he said: I didnt 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 of what I was learning at Harvard. I was shocked by all the discoveries I came across when I studied American history, particularly when I found out about race relations and our legacy of black cultural achievement. It was shameful that I had never been exposed to such information before. It was a shock to realize that only a privileged few could get that kind of information, that kind of education. I didnt want to teach. Thats good work, but I wanted to communicate to the broadest possible audience and for me that was [through the medium of] television.

The job at the television station in Texas, however, didnt work out well because Riggs found himself confronted with immobilizing racism. He left Texas for California, where he earned a masters degree in journalism at the University of California at Berkeley in 1981. Immediately after, he began apprenticing himself to documentary filmmakersparticularly those working in public televisionin order to learn his craft. By the time he began producing his own works in 1987, he had nine films to his credit, on which he had served variously as production assistant, editor, associate editor, post-production supervisor, and/or sound effects director.

Having already established a name for himself among producers and technicians in documentary film, Riggs continued to build on that reputation as he produced, directed, and wrote his own films, six of which appeared between 1987 and 1989. Two of these filmsEthnic Notions and Tongues Untied have earned the highest regard and praise from filmmakers, black activists, and gay audiences. Simmons called Ethnic Notions a masterpiece and noted that it establish[ed] Riggs as one of the foremost contemporary producers of historical video in documentary.

Although Ethnic Notions is a brutally challenging look at the images that have been used in American culture to reinforce racism from legal slavery through the late twentieth-century, it has been received with respect by white and African American audiences alike. In 1989 it won a series of prestigious awards, including the Individual Craft Award of Outstanding Achievement in Research in the national news and documentary category from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Showings at the San Francisco International Film Festival and at the American Film and Video Festival also brought awards.

Confronted Homophobia With Tongues Untied

Having confronted racism in Ethnic Notions, and having established a practice of voicing the concerns of communities that he felt had been silenced for too long, Riggs moved into even more controversial territory with Tongues Untied. In the words of Revon Kyle Banneker for BLK, the experimental Tongues Untied unleashes the blackened voices of suppressed hunger, anger and aloneness. The frank discussion and portrayal of a black gay male identity kept the film from being aired on most public television stations and limited Riggss funding to non-government sources. The film, however, enjoyed broad distribution at film festivalsgay, black, and mainstreamand earned its maker still more awards, including an outstanding merit award from the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame film/video competition. After its premiere at the American Film Institutes 1989 Video Festival, Tongues Untied also showed at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Cleveland International Film Festival. Since 1989 it appeared at countless festivals and series around the country and managed to air, usually in censored versions, on some public television stations.

Although Tongues Untied featured no explicit sex, it inspired controversy among white conservatives and black activists alike. While both racist and homophobic responses were predictable, the latter evoked more concern from Riggs. He told Banneker, Straight blacks are willing to give me an award, but they dont want to talk much about homosexuality. But it is precisely this discussion, he asserted, that they need. In another essay from Brother to Brother, Riggs explained why this discussion is needed: I am a Negro Faggot, if I believe what movies, TV, and rap music say of me. Because of my sexuality, I cannot be Black I cannot be a Black Gay Man because, by the tenets of Black Macho, Black Gay Man is a triple negation. I am consigned, by these tenets, to remain a Negro Faggot. And as such I am game for play, to be used, joked about, put down, beaten, slapped and bashed, not just by illiterate homophobic thugs in the night, but by many of Black American cultures best and brightest.

In 1989, while making Tongues Untied, Riggs tested positive for HIVwhich meant that he had contracted the virus that can cause AIDS, but did not yet have AIDS. He continued his filmmaking, turning out a documentary about the experiences of HIV positive gay black men entitled No Regrets in 1992, despite the onset of complications from the infection. He also produced Color Adjustment in 1991, the longawaited sequel to Ethnic Notions. Color Adjustment was broadcast by PBS-TV in the summer of 1992 as part of the networks independent documentaries series P.O.V. Deeming the work a thoughtful, engrossing essay on the history of televisions portrayal of black people, Associated Press reporter Scott Williams noted that there wont be any controversy over [Color Adjustment] simply because [Riggs] presents the virtually inarguable case that TV has ignored, distorted, assimilated and beatified black people but rarely depicted them honestly. Color Adjustment won the highest award in television: the George Foster Peabody Award.

Directed until Death

As the HIV virus ravaged his body, Riggs continued to work on his final film, Black Is Black Aint, a documentary examining the complex cultural forces that shape African-American identity from the time when, as Riggs said being Black wasnt always so beautiful to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. While filming Riggs grew sicker but maintained his part-time position on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeleyteaching in the same department that granted him his masterstook on public speaking engagements, and continued to write until kidney failure and other problems confined him to a hospital bed. From his hospital bed, Riggs continued to direct and even appeared on camera.

Riggs succumbed to AIDS on April 5, 1994, at age 37 before he could finish the film. His co-producer Nicole Atkinson and editor/co-director Christiane Badgely used Riggss notes as a guide to complete Black Is Black Aint seven months after his death. Riggs was survived by his life companion of 15 years, Jack Vincent.

In Black Is Black Aint Riggs commented from his hospital bed that As long as I have work then Im not going to die, cause work is a living spirit in methat which wants to connect with other people and pass on something to them which they can use in their own lives and grow from. Ultimately, Riggss work lives on, showing that his voice is stronger than his virus. He explained the importance of the persistence of his black gay voice in Out/look: Whenever we speak the truths of our lives, our words must be more than mere words: Every time we speak, we must engage in the most radicalas in fundamentalform of self-affirmation. As communities historically oppressed through silence, through the power of Voice we must seize our freedom, achieve our fullest humanity.

Selected works

Film

(producer, director, and writer) Changing Images: Mirrors of Life, Molds of Reality, 1987.

(director and writer) Open Window: Innovations from the University of California, 1988.

(director, writer, and editor)Visions Toward Tomorrow: Ida Louise Jackson, 1989.

(producer, director, and writer) Ethnic Notions, 1989.

(producer, director, and writer) Tongues Untied, 1989.

(producer, director, and editor) Warring Ideals: A Portrait of Henry O. Tanner, 1989.

(producer and director)Affirmations, 1990.

(producer, director, and writer) Color Adjustment, 1991.

(producer and director)No Regrets, 1992.

Writings

Tongues Untied (poem) and Black Macho Revisited: Reflections of a SNAP! Queen (essay), both published in Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, edited by Essex Hemphill, Alyson Publications, 1991, pp. 200-205 and 253-57.

Sources

Books

Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, edited by Essex Hemphill, Alyson Publications, 1991, pp. 189-205 and 253-257.

Periodicals

Ann Arbor News, June 15, 1992.

Art Journal, winter 1995, pp. 69-73.

BLK, April 1990, pp. 10-19.

Cineaste, fall 1996, pp. 55-56.

Nation, November 6, 1995, pp. 551-554.

Out/look, spring 1991, pp. 12-19.

Ondine E. Le Blanc and Sara Pendergast

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Riggs, Marlon 1957–

Marlon Riggs 1957

Documentary filmmaker

At a Glance

Chose a Career in Documentary Film

Earned Acclaim for Original Films

Confronted Homophobia with Tongues Untied

Appealed to Even Broader Audience

Selected filmography

Selected writings

Sources

Marlon Riggs has made his name in a previously neglected field in film: the production of documentaries from a black gay male sensibility. Praised for their balance and style, his films display a technical skill and imaginative flair that have earned the respect of the filmmaking community at large. In addition, his treatment of controversial issues in a straightforward, documentary format have inspired considerable debate. Riggss willingness both to be out about his sexual identity and to confront racism and homophobia through film strikes audiences differently according to their opinions about homosexuality and racial politics.

Like many children in military families, Riggs spent much of his childhood outside of the United States. Born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1957, he lived there until the age of eleven, when his family moved to Georgia; soon after that, they relocated to West Germany. Riggs returned alone to the United States in 1974 in order to begin college at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. At Harvard, he began the process of accepting his sexuality, a process known in gay communities as coming out.

According to Riggs, learning to view his sexuality in a positive light was complicated for him as an African American man in a racist culture. Riggs described his experiences in a poetic essay published in Out/look, a gay and lesbian quarterly magazine: As an undergraduate at [Harvard], I was as much a prisoner as a student. Like most others, I had come there to learn, but foremost, I had come in search of community, of people like myselfthe young, gifted, and Black.... I awakened, after I arrived, to the realization that I was also gay. And the reflection of myself that this new me suggested, this reflection I found nowhere. Worse, I believed it existednowhere.... Most days, at lunch and dinner, over the course of my freshmen year, I self-consciously surveyed the dining hall, steered a course beyond the anonymous rows of young white animated faces, among whom I clearly did not belong: moved further still beyond the cluster of Black Tables, where I knew deep down, no matter how much I masqueraded, my true self would show and would be shunned; and sat, often alone, eating quickly, hurrying my exit from a room where all eyes, I felt, condemned me with unspoken contempt: misfit, freak, faggot.... Beneath such judgment I did as millions have done before me and since: I withdrew into the shadows of my soul; chained my tongue; attempted, as best as I could, to snuff out the flame of my sexuality; assumed the impassive face and stiff pose of Silent Black Macho.... I was serving time. For what crime I didnt

At a Glance

Born in 1957 in Fort Worth, TX; son of a career officer in the U.S. military; domestic partnership with longtime companion, Jack, beginning 1980. Education: Harvard University, B.A., 1978; University of California at Berkeley, M.A., 1981.

Worked for television station in Texas, 1978-79; moved to Berkeley, CA, 1979; produced masters thesis Long Train Running, University of California at Berkeley, 1981; worked for various producers and directors in documentary film, with particular focus on public television production, 1981-87; began producing, writing, and directing original films, 1987; produced Ethnic Notions and Tongues Untied, 1989; continued producing films such as Color Adjustment and No Regrets, despite suffering complications from AIDS virus. Also part-time faculty member, School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

Member: Association of California Independent Public Television Producers, Bay Area Video Coalition, Black Gay Men United (Oakland, CA), Gay Men of African Descent (New York City).

Awards: Outstanding merit award and best experimental video, both from Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, 1989, for Tongues Untied; best performance award from Atlanta Film Festival, 1989, for Tongues Untied; best documentary award from Berlin Film Festival, 1989, for Tongues Untied; Individual Craft Award of Outstanding Achievement in Research in the national news and documentary category, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 1989, for Ethnic Notions; National Endowment for the Humanities grant; National Endowment for the Arts grant.

Addresses: Office School of Journalism, University of California at Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720.

know . . . . I served, in rage, pain, and bitter, needless solitude, for three and a half of my undergraduate years, ignorant that there could be any other way.

In the middle of his senior year, despite the resistance he found among the faculty, Riggs pursued a dissertation topic that would give him a sense of history and a sense of identity. Again, he described this change in Out/look: When nobody speaks your name, or even knows it, you, knowing it, must be the first to speak it. When the existing history and culture do not acknowledge and address youdo not see or talk to youyou must write a new history, shape a new culture, that will. This self-creation took the form of a dissertation about the evolution of the depiction of male homosexuality in American fiction and poetry, which he wrote under the guidance of a graduate student teaching assistant, since none of the professors at the university were willing to take on the project.

Chose a Career in Documentary Film

After he graduated with honors from Harvard in 1978, Riggs returned to Texas to work at a television station. In an interview for Brother to Brother, he told Professor Ron Simmons: My parents and grandparents expected me to become a preacher. I didnt. I became a filmmaker and thats my platform, my podium, the pedestal from which I preach these days. Of the choice to make films per se, he said: I didnt 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 of what I was learning at Harvard. I was shocked by all the discoveries I came across when I studied American history, particularly when I found out about race relations and our legacy of black cultural achievement. It was shameful that I had never been exposed to such information before. It was a shock to realize that only a privileged few could get that kind of information, that kind of education. I didnt want to teach.... Thats good work, but I wanted to communicate to the broadest possible audience and for me that was [through the medium of] television.

The job at the television station in Texas, however, didnt work out well because Riggs found himself confronted with immobilizing racism. He left Texas for California, where he earned a masters degree in journalism at the University of California at Berkeley in 1981. Immediately after, he began apprenticing himself to documentary filmmakers particularly those working in public televisionin order to learn his craft. By the time he began producing his own works in 1987, he had nine films to his credit, on which he had served variously as production assistant, editor, associate editor, post-production supervisor, and/or sound effects director.

Earned Acclaim for Original Films

Having already established a name for himself among producers and technicians in documentary film, Riggs continued to build on that reputation as he produced, directed, and wrote his own films, six of which appeared between 1987 and 1989. Two of these filmsEthnic Notions and Tongues Untied have earned the highest regard and praise from filmmakers, black activists, and gay audiences. Simmons called Ethnic Notions a master-piece and noted that it establish[ed] Riggs as one of the foremost contemporary producers of historical video in documentary.

Although Ethnic Notions is a brutally challenging look at the images that have been used in American culture to reinforce racism from legal slavery through the late twentieth-century, it has been received with respect by white and African American audiences alike. In 1989, it won a series of prestigious awards, including the Individual Craft Award of Outstanding Achievement in Research in the national news and documentary category from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences. Showings at the San Francisco International Film Festival and at the American Film and Video Festival also brought awards.

Confronted Homophobia with Tongues Untied

Having confronted racism in Ethnic Notions, and having established a practice of voicing the concerns of communities that he felt had been silenced for too long, Riggs moved into even more controversial territory with Tongues Untied. In the words of Revon Kyle Banneker for BLK, the experimental Tongues Untied unleashes the blackened voices of suppressed hunger, anger and aloneness. The frank discussion and portrayal of a black gay male identity kept the film from being aired on most public television stations and limited Riggss funding to non-government sources. The film has, however, enjoyed broad distribution at film festivalsgay, black, and mainstreamand has earned its maker still more awards, including an outstanding merit award from the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame film/video competition. After its premiere at the American Film Institutes 1989 Video Festival, Tongues Untied also showed at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Cleveland International Film Festival. Since 1989, it has appeared at countless festivals and series around the country and has managed to air, usually in censored versions, on some public television stations.

Although Tongues Untied features no explicit sex, it has inspired controversy among white conservatives and black activists alike. While both racist and homophobic responses were predictable, the latter evoked more concern from Riggs. He told Banneker, Straight blacks are willing to give me an award, but they dont want to talk much about homosexuality. But it is precisely this discussion, he asserts, that they need. In another essay from Brother to Brother, Riggs explained why this discussion is needed: I am a Negro Faggot, if I believe what movies, TV, and rap music say of me. Because of my sexuality, I cannot be Black.... I cannot be a Black Gay Man because, by the tenets of Black Macho, Black Gay Man is a triple negation. I am consigned, by these tenets, to remain a Negro Faggot. And as such I am game for play, to be used, joked about, put down, beaten, slapped and bashed, not just by illiterate homophobic thugs in the night, but by many of Black American cultures best and brightest.

Since earning his degree at Berkeley in 1981, Riggs has continued to live in the San Francisco area, making a home with his lover, Jack, whom he met in the late 1970s. A part-time position on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley, in the same department that granted him his masters, has paid his living expense while he raised money to fund his films.

Appealed to Even Broader Audience

In 1989, while making Tongues Untied, Riggs tested positive for HIVwhich means that he had contracted the virus that can cause AIDS, not that he had AIDS yet. He continued his filmmaking, turning out a documentary about the experiences of HIV+ gay black men entitled No Regrets in 1992, despite the onset of complications from the infection. He also produced Color Adjustment in 1991, the long-awaited sequel to Ethnic Notions. Color Adjustment was broadcast by PBS-TV in the summer of 1992 as part of the networks independent documentaries series P.O.V. Deeming the work a thoughtful, engrossing essay on the history of televisions portrayal of black people, Associated Press reporter Scott Williams noted that there wont be any controversy over [Color Adjustment] simply because [Riggs] presents the virtually inarguable case that TV has ignored, distorted, assimilated and beatified black people but rarely depicted them honestly.

Ultimately, Riggss voice is stronger than any prejudice or any virus. He explained the importance of the persistence of his black gay voice in Out/look: Whenever we speak the truths of our lives, our words must be more than mere words: Every time we speak, we must engage in the most radicalas in fundamentalform of self-affirmation. As communities historically oppressed through silence, through the power of Voice we must seize our freedom, achieve our fullest humanity.

Selected filmography

Director and writer

Open Window: Innovations from the University of California, 1988.

(And editor) Visions Toward Tomorrow: Ida Louise Jackson, 1989.

Producer and director

(And editor) Warring Ideals: A Portrait of Henry O. Tanner, 1989.

Affirmations, 1990.

No Regrets, 1992.

Producer, director, and writer

(And editor) Changing Images: Mirrors of Life, Molds of Reality, 1987.

Ethnic Notions, 1989.

(And editor) Tongues United, 1989.

Color Adjustment, 1991.

Early film work

(Production assistant) Two Parents, Two Homes, 1981.

(Associate editor and sound effects director) How Much Is Enough: Decision Making in the Nuclear Age, 1982.

(Assistant editor) The State of the Language: In Other Words, 1983.

(Associate editor and sound effects director) In Our Defense, 1983.

(Editor) A Traveling Jewish Theatre, 1983.

(Editor) Susan Noon Profiles, 1983-84.

(Associate editor and post-production supervisor) The First Fifty Years: Reflections on U.S./Soviet Relations, 1984.

(Assistant editor) Fighting Ministers, 1985.

(Associate editor and post-production supervisor) Faces of War, 1986.

Selected writings

Tongues Untied (poem) and Black Macho Revisited: Reflections of a SNAP! Queen (essay), both published in Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, edited by Essex Hemphill, Alyson Publications, 1991, pp. 200-205 and 253-57.

Sources

Books

Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men, edited by Essex Hemphill, Alyson Publications, 1991, pp. 189-205 and 253-257.

Periodicals

Ann Arbor News, Associated Press report, June 15, 1992.

BLK, April 1990, pp. 10-19.

Out/look, spring 1991, pp. 12-19.

Ondine E. Le Blanc

Cite this article
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"Riggs, Marlon 1957–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Riggs, Marlon 1957–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/riggs-marlon-1957

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Riggs, Marlon

RIGGS, Marlon



Nationality: American. Born: Marlon Troy Riggs, Fort Worth, Texas, 1957. Education: Harvard University, B.A. (with honors), 1978; University of California, Berkeley, M.A. in journalism, 1981. Career: Worked for television station in Texas, 1978–79; moved to Berkeley, California, 1979; produced master's thesis Long Train Running, University of California at Berkeley, 1981; worked for various producers and directors in documentary film, with particular focus on public television production, 1981–87; began producing, writing, and directing original films, 1987; part-time faculty member, School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. Awards: Berlin International Film Festival Teddy Award for Best Documentary Film Award, Los Angeles Film Critics Association Independent/Experimental Film or Video Award, and National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Individual Craft Award for Outstanding Achievement in Research, for Tongues Untied, 1990; American Film Institute Independent Film and Video Artists Award, 1992; George Foster Peabody Award, Outstanding Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association, and Erik Barnouw Award from the Organization of American Historians, for Color Adjustment 1992; Sundance Film Festival Filmmaker's Trophy in Documentary, for Black Is. . . Black Ain't, 1995. Died: Oakland, California, 5 April 1994, of complications from AIDS.


Films as Director:

1986

Ethnic Notions (doc) (+ pr, wr)

1990

Affirmations

1991

Tongues Untied (doc) (+pr, wr, ed); Anthem

1992

No Regret; Color Adjustment (doc) (+pr, wr)

1993

Boy's Shorts: The New Queer Cinema

1994

Black Is. . . Black Ain't (doc)



Publications


By RIGGS: articles—

"Boyz N Hollywood," in High Performance, vol. 14, no. 4, Winter 1991.

Kleinhans, Chuck, and Julia Lesage, "Listening to the Heartbeat: Interview with Marlon Riggs," in Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, no. 36, 1991.

"Tongues Untied" (poem) and "Black Macho Revisted: Reflections of a SNAP! Queen," in Brother to Brother: New Writings byBlack Gay Men, edited by Essex Hemphill, Boston, 1991.

"Unleash the Queen," in Black Popular Culture, edited by Gina Dent, Seattle, 1992.

Gerandmann, Roy, "New Agendas in Black Filmmaking: An Interview with Marlon Riggs," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 19, nos. 2–3, 1992.

"Tongues Re-tied," in Resolutions: Contemporary Video Practices, edited by Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg, Minneapolis, 1996.


On RIGGS: books—

Avena, Thomas, Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS, San Francisco, 1994.

Holmlund, Chris, and Cynthia Fuchs, editors, Between the Sheets, Inthe Streets: Queer, Lesbian, Gay Documentary, Minneapolis, 1997.

Klotman, Phyllis R., and Janet K. Cutler, Struggles for Representation: African-American Documentary Film and Video, Indianapolis, 1999.


On RIGGS: articles—

Anwar, Farrah, "Tongues Untied," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 1, no. 3, July 1991.

Walters, Barry, "Filmmaker's Social Views Untied," in San Francisco Examiner, 14 June 1993.

Mercer, Kobina, "Dark and Lovely Too: Black Gay Men in Independent Film," in Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and GayFilm and Video, edited by Martha Gerver, et al., New York, 1993.

Scott, Darieck, "Jungle Fever? Black Gay Identity Politics, White Dick, and the Utopian Bedroom," in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbianand Gay Studies, vol. 1, no. 3, 1994.

Julien, Isaac, "Long Live the Queen," in Village Voice (New York), 26 April 1994.

Harper, Phillip Brian, "Marlon Riggs: The Subjective Position of Documentary Video," in Art Journal, vol. 54, no. 4, Winter 1995.

McEldowney, Elliott, "Marlon Troy Riggs," in Gay and LesbianLiterature, vol. 2, edited by Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast, Detroit, 1998.

Petty, Sheila, "Silence and Its Opposite: Expression of Race in Tongues Untied," in Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video, edited by Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski, Detroit, 1998.

On RIGGS: film—


I Shall Not be Removed: The Life of Marlon Riggs, directed by Karen Everett, California Newsreel, 1996.

* * *

Though the career of Marlon Riggs was brief, he established himself as one of the most important contemporary documentary filmmakers by producing, writing, and directing some of the most aesthetically innovative and socially provocative documentaries of the 1980s and 1990s.

Riggs, the child of a military family, spent a good deal of his childhood traveling. He lived in Fort Worth, Texas, the town of his birth, until age 11, when his family moved to West Germany. He returned to the United States in 1974 to attend Harvard University. For his senior thesis, Riggs chose a topic important to his own identity—the depiction of male homosexuality in American fiction and poetry—a subject not well received by the faculty. He ended up completing his research under the guidance of a graduate teaching assistant; none of the faculty were interested in serving as his advisor on the project.

After graduating with honors, Riggs returned to Texas to work at a television station. The racism he encountered while on the job fueled his decision to leave. He pursued a master's degree in journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1981, having produced a thesis titled Long Train Running. After graduation Riggs honed his skills as a filmmaker by assisting documentary directors and producers, working as a production assistant and later editor, post-production supervisor, and sound editor. Much of his work was for those working in public television. In 1989 he completed his own film, Ethnic Notions, an documentary concerning the pervasive and intransigent stereotypes of African Americans. In the film, Riggs used an innovative approach, tracing the history of the stereotypes from slavery to the present, skillfully presenting the ways by which centuries-old attitudes about African Americans inform contemporary racism. Ethnic Notions established Riggs as one of the most important contemporary directors of American documentary.

His next film, Tongues Untied, an aesthetically challenging hybrid of experimental and documentary forms, used scenes of fantasy, performance, personal testimonies, direct address, and autobiography to confront, as Farrah Anwar writes in Sight and Sound,"the complacency of whites and blacks, hetero and homosexuals, in a bravura display of controlled anger" about the oppression faced by gay African American men. Though the film was well received by critics and the public, it was deemed controversial because of its frank depiction of racism and homophobia. The film was used, along with other federally funded art works, by conservative members of the United States Senate to attack the National Endowment for the Arts. During the making of the film, Riggs discovered that he tested positive for HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS. Despite the threat to his health, and complications that ensued, he continued to work, completing two more films: No Regrets (1992), a documentary on the experiences of gay African-American men and HIV, and Color Adjustment (1992), which traces the evolution of African-American images on American television. More than just a history of African Americans on American television, this latter documentary, like all of Riggs's works, tackles the subject of social relations and social justice. Color Adjustment, narrated by actress and civil rights activist Ruby Dee, places the television images in the context of wider social and political relations, examining the inter-relation between America's racial consciousness and network prime-time programming. Rigg's final film, Black Is. . . Black Ain't (1995), which was completed after his death, analyzes the ways in which African-American identity has been formed through an exclusion of the female, the gay, and the lesbian.

—Frances Gateward

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"Riggs, Marlon." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Encyclopedia.com. 20 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Riggs, Marlon." International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/movies/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/riggs-marlon