Marlon Riggs, Ancestor
The very first romantic kiss between men on American television happens in Marlon Riggs’s groundbreaking film Tongues Untied. That kiss is between two Black men, and one of them is Riggs himself. As of this writing, if you look up the first gay kiss on American TV, you’ll find a Dawson’s Creek episode from the year 2000. But the truth is that Riggs’s 1989 documentary—aired on PBS in 1991 after two years of conflict—broke this ground.
I’m telling you this so you know just how afraid I am of erasure. You can’t understand Riggs’s intention and achievement if you don’t know what it’s like to work under the threat of erasure, a threat reserved in its own particular way for people who are Black and queer. I am writing as if I can make the man more indelible than he made himself before his death in 1994. I want to make it clear that he is still here.
In the films where he rebelled against documentary conventions and included himself, Marlon Riggs is one of the most delightful and difficult people to watch. Every time I see his on-screen presence, I love him a little more simply because he is naive enough to believe that his films can do what he means for them to do. And every time I see him, I shake my head at that same naivete. While Riggs’s childlike self-determination is what allows for his genius, it does not save his literal life. I watch each documentary knowing the director will die and knowing how.
What’s worse about the how is that the same governing powers of the USA who ignored the HIV/AIDS pandemic in the 1980s and ’90s have again put capitalist principles before the needs of human lives during the coronavirus pandemic we are now experiencing in 2020. If we can erase and forget the lives, the cultural production, the social progress lost to AIDS, then we can indeed fight over whether or not to wear a mask, over whose lives can be sacrificed.
I grew up thinking my life should be sacrificed. The world made it quite clear to me that whenever or however queer people died, it was because they deserved to die. For the most part this hasn’t changed since, as far as I can tell, our trans siblings have yet to be accepted by a vast majority of queer people in this nation.
I saw my first Riggs film, Black Is . . . Black Ain’t (1994), in a summer intensive class when I was twenty years old. During our discussion of the film, the other students were mostly perplexed that Riggs was naked in it. Black Is . . . Black Ain’t is an anti-essentialist movie about the expansiveness of Blackness and the fact that Black pride exists among queer people whose lives were all the more vulnerable during the AIDS pandemic. In the film, Riggs reveals his own HIV-positive status and shows himself being hospitalized because of it. Every minute of the documentary and the ensuing discussion made me so visibly nervous that my professor, the scholar Rudolph Byrd, asked me to stay after class to talk. When he asked if I was okay, I answered, “Oh, I just like poetry, so I really get into it when I hear it,” to explain why I was sweating and still shaking.
There are so many horror stories about how we treat one another. If you believe them, then you believe we are born shading and reading and stunting and sleeping with our sisters’ husbands behind our sisters’ backs. I probably hate these stereotypes so much because absolutely no trace of them stood at the door of my beginning. Dr. Byrd said, “May I make some suggestions?” And with his guidance—the man quite literally taught me how to find anything in a library—I spent that summer reading Joseph Beam’s anthology In the Life, Essex Hemphill’s anthology Brother to Brother, and countless poems by Hemphill and Assotto Saint. I also watched and began memorizing the most flippant lines from Riggs’s Ethnic Notions, Tongues Untied, Color Adjustment, and Non, je ne regrette rien (No Regret).
Marlon Troy Riggs was born in 1957 in Forth Worth, Texas, to a family with deep roots in Louisiana. He grew up in Texas, Georgia, and West Germany before studying history at Harvard University, where he designed his own curriculum based on the history of gay men in literature. Riggs’s undergraduate work is important, as he felt it put him in a position of privilege: “I wanted to communicate what I was learning to people I know who would never go to Harvard. I wanted to communicate what I was learning historically to masses of people. That means motion pictures. That means documentary-making . . . nonfiction motion pictures . . .” He moved to Oakland, California, and lived there for fifteen years. He got a master’s in journalism focused on documentary filmmaking from UC Berkeley, where he would later join the faculty in 1987, after years of working as an editor and postproduction supervisor.
Riggs won an Emmy for his first film, Ethnic Notions (1986), which aired on PBS. The documentary explores the proliferation of Black stereotypes from the midnineteenth century to the civil rights movement and continues to be a mainstay in college classrooms across the country. Much more experimental in nature, his second film, Tongues Untied, features several Black gay poets and activists of the time, including Essex Hemphill and ball culture vogue dancer Willi Ninja, as well as Riggs’s comrades from Black Gay Men United, an organization founded in Oakland. Some of Riggs’s own poems are in the film. Tongues Untied creates a kind of choreography for these poems while showing the men who recite them as they go about their everyday lives. The magic of Tongues Untied and the short that followed it, Affirmations (1990), is their depictions of gay men dancing together, dining together, and marching together to the chagrin of throngs lining the streets for the African American Freedom Day parade in Harlem. Tongues Untied went on to win the Teddy Award from the Berlin Film Festival.
Tongues Untied and the controversy surrounding it are two of the best things that ever happened to Riggs and to me. During his bid to become the Republican presidential nominee, Pat Buchanan made castigating the film a central part of his television ad campaign. And several Republican Congressmen found ways to use it in their ongoing fight to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts. From that point to the end of his life, Riggs added to his schedule of filming and teaching a grueling tour itinerary that took him to universities and talk shows all over the world. His belief in his work and in the humanity of Black queer people made him a perfect public speaker for the moment. He remained careful to call out homophobia among Black people in his films and in person, and to openly roll his eyes at white racism: “Many of the people who’ve lambasted this work based upon the argument that this is misusing, abusing federal tax dollars—taxpayer’s dollars—don’t even imagine that we are part of those Americans whose salaries are taxed to support the government. And we’re talking about a pittance, $5,000, which if anybody knows and understands video doesn’t go that [finger snap] far.”Riggs’s ability to be himself in every situation suggested that—and this was quite the revelation to me in the mid- to late-1990s—he really didn’t think there was anything wrong with him. And his success as a filmmaker suggested something that I only began to understand and internalize after watching his third full-length film. Color Adjustment (1991) is a sort of sequel to Ethnic Notions in that it examines television images of Black people, starting in the 1950s, with Amos ’n’ Andy, but this time covering enough decades to get all the way to The Cosby Show in the ’80s. Both films are educational and more conventional in their approach than Riggs’s other work. The brilliance of Color Adjustment lies not only in its honesty about what the American public was willing to see of and from Black characters but also in its very subtle way of confronting the actors, activists, and academics interviewed in segments spliced together with some of the nation’s favorite and most racist scenes in the history of television. The film takes its title from the words of the first Black actress to star in a prime-time TV show, Diahann Carroll, who quips, “Many of the minorities involved with this profession during that period are guilty of something that we had to do for survival, and that’s called adjustments. We had to make adjustments in our minds constantly in order to stay away from the area of anger and ‘what’s wrong with me?’”
You don’t see Riggs in Ethnic Notions or in Color Adjustment. But if you watch them enough times, you hear his very distinct voice prodding for elaboration as he is interviewing the likes of Carroll, Henry Louis Gates, and Angela Davis, as well as television moguls like Steven Bochco, Norman Lear, and David Wolper. Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment are narrated by Black screen legends Esther Rolle and Ruby Dee, respectively. Riggs was a short, dark-skinned, Black, gay man with a lilt and stride folks like to call feminine. And he got these people to participate in his vision. He confronted them face to face with all of who he was. And they treated him as if he deserved respect.
Like most people on the planet, I grew up in an environment where people really did believe that something awful was the automatic outcome of any gay life. I remember my mother telling me, “Oh, you don’t want that, son. It’s an awful life. You’ll be unhappy. You’ll die alone,” when, in actuality, she and my dad are the only people I know of who have had months or years of silence with me because of my sexuality. And I believed what she said at first. I just knew something awful was going to happen to me. And it did. Many awful things happened to me, but the same awful things kept happening to all the straight people around me too!
I hadn’t seen straight people work with and talk to gay people without looking like they might laugh at us or shift into sudden violence. I knew people were wrong about me—that I was wrong about myself when I hated myself—because Marlon Riggs did his work with such integrity and because that work included teamwork. Color Adjustment won the Peabody Award before Riggs returned to experimentation for his final two films. Non, je ne regrette rien (No Regret) (1993) opens with a series of Black men discussing their HIV-positive status while the camera shows only their hands and parts of their faces as if it means to keep them anonymous because of the fact of their confessions. Of course, the film questions, no one with HIV would or should say it! But eventually the documentary shows their faces and, at the end, their names, so that we see how far-reaching the virus is, that it harms the bravest of men. No Regret features a poet, a visual artist, a filmmaker, an activist, and a recovering alcoholic who is at the time of the film a devout, churchgoing Christian. In a completely explosive moment soon after his face is revealed, the very talented poet Assotto Saint says, “It’s not something that I will be made to feel ashamed of. It is a virus. It is a medical problem. People are not made to feel ashamed when they have cancer, when they have a heart attack . . . no . . . this is a virus. Let’s deal with it from that fact.”
Riggs found out he was HIV-positive after his first film was such a huge success but before any of his other work was released. The urgency and advocacy of what we see when we watch his movies is not only a product of his craft. Riggs’s films feel so necessary, so fast-paced—even the shorts are so multi-modally excessive and Whitmanian in their maximalist reach, which manages a view of every kind of visual, performance, and literary art—because he knew the timer set on his life was real and ticking quite loudly. Can you imagine knowing you’ll die soon and using the time you have left to go to work, to exhaust yourself with travel for speaking engagements, to exhaust your eyes with the hours and hours of editing necessary for making films?
Riggs would say of his childhood, “I really felt that I had a special destiny . . . I would go outside . . . and look up at the stars, and I says, ‘yes, I’ve been chosen.’ I just knew I was going to do something in my life. It was taken for granted.” I don’t think he ever got over himself. Or maybe I do think he lived proving that childhood self right. How odd it is to encounter an artist under the impression that he will “do something” with his art!
Marlon Riggs also recalled a childhood of seeing the luminaries we call the ancestors watching over him when he slept. And he believed they never stopped watching. I have to believe him too, because that means he’s here with me. I have to believe he’s here from pandemic to pandemic, down to the very last frame.
A series of Marlon Riggs’s films is now playing on the Criterion Channel.
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