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The Signifyin’ Works of Marlon Riggs: Positive Images

Essays

Jun 22, 2021

A pioneering video essayist, nonfiction filmmaker, multidisciplinary performer, teacher, and public speaker; a self-described, certified SNAP! queen and signifying oracle, Marlon Riggs was a man of his times, in the most extraordinary sense of that valuation. He led a tantalizingly wide-ranging life—investigating and enlivening, over the course of his career, a veritable harvest of questions and experiences, of notions, ethnic and sexual and otherwise—though that life was cut short when he died of AIDS-related illnesses in 1994, at the age of thirty-seven. If his films teach us anything—and they have more to teach us than any one person, divorced from collective experience, could muster in isolation—it is that Riggs’s life and canon are hardly reducible to any one facet. He loved hard—within his work, in the way he made that work, and on behalf of that work. Which is also to say that he fought hard: in the very forms of the films he made, the gaze and substance and sinews of them, and for the people he made them about and for, the audiences whom he could impel out of silence and into truer notions of themselves. From his 1986 feature, Ethnic Notions, an excoriating study of the long afterlives of slavery-era stereotypes extending into the Black present tense, to his final work, Black Is . . . Black Ain’t (1995), which weaves together the threads of his ideas on American image-making, Black southern life, and his own battle with AIDS that the filmmaker made in the interim, Riggs secured his own timelessness. Time, change, and the inconsistencies and damning persistence of history were, in so many ways, his subject.

The histories that make up and arise out of a single life—his own life—were also his subject, and this, too, is what made him a man of his time. Living his life, he was feared by some but, more urgently, he was and remains challenging and enlightening for all who encounter his work. Those in whom he inspired terror included such members of the sex-panicked, culture-warring ruling class of the 1980s and ’90s as Pat Buchanan, Jesse Helms, and the Reverend Donald E. Wildmon—antagonists whose efforts to render Riggs and his work invisible were precisely what the films were conceived to chronicle and contest. The affront of such forces is necessarily twined with the history of Riggs’s work, and with the work of the many other queer artists, in every medium, who sought to testify to the realities of a disease whose devastation was being abetted by its enforced absence from the political conversation, sought to offer loud correctives to that silence.

Anthem
Black Is . . . Black Ain’t
Tongues Untied
Color Adjustment
Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regret)
Ethnic Notions

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