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.
The fears promoted and in so many ways invented by these men do not define Riggs’s work in itself so much as provide the counterpoint that proves the point. But this is not to say that Rigg’s work does not issue any challenges. His was not a love unmoored from self-investigation. For all the ways that Riggs’s work is premised on coming out and stepping forward and collectively denuding our queer, Black selves of shame and silence, he was also an unusually wise steward and critic of Black queer men’s visions of ourselves. To say nothing of America’s vision of itself. Key to that vision, his work attests, is Black America’s troubled participation in its making—willing and not. One of the stark shocks of watching Riggs’s work today, after so many years of progress—eight years “in power”; Black Panther at the multiplex; visible Black millionaires shaping and shifting the representational mainstream—is bearing witness to the difficult questions the filmmaker posed of his own embattled Black contemporaries, his aggravations of the very notion of progress. The Bill Cosby of I Spy and The Cosby Show; the Eddie Murphy of Raw; the stars of high-minded liberal programs like Julia and Roots; Spike Lee—the mid-to late twentieth century’s representatives of the race. The visionaries of the years up to and including Riggs’s own moment. Black America’s immortal image-makers, the deified media symbols of racial progress, are among those whom Riggs deftly, cannily, repeatedly, but not unsympathetically, holds accountable in his work; for him, their collective ascendance into the mainstream is a complicated, at times painful, proposition. The history of images is a psychic one: Riggs teaches us this. His work asks: How did we get here, feeling this way about ourselves, participating in—even pining for—these images of ourselves?
Such is the counterintuitive essence of Riggs’s body of work, a push and pull that is apparent in the fiber and form of his seven films, with their emphases on audiovisual collage; the dialectical zigzagging of their arguments; the way they show the past, with its uncleansed stains, persisting into the present. Riggs had a way of seeing everything at once, seeing through to the heart of the matter with eyes that could bore into the truth. And for Riggs, the truth is never one thing. It is clashing, beautiful, argumentative, polyphonic, as if he—ever one to freely deploy and cite his sources and influences—is taking W. E. B. Du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness” and rendering it over and over into innumerable consciousnesses. See, in Affirmations (1990), the images of gay Black men marching in Harlem on African American Freedom Day, which not only evoke but actively, physically collide with images of civil rights marches. Or, in Anthem (1991), the close-ups on Black mouths eager to “pervert the language,” as one of them puts it; the superimposition of a map of Africa onto a pink triangle; and the deft use of coded double entendres (“Are you safe?”).
These examples illustrate how Riggs’s nimble, suggestive mind works. The claim that these fights for equality—of Black people, of gay people, of gay Black people—are of the same strain is forceful enough on its own. But Riggs thrived on the power of counterpoint and radical comeuppance. And so, in response to the voices of Affirmations’ Black marchers in Harlem, we get another voice from the crowd, a man saying, “You are not a part of African tradition,” and, more violently, “You’re still slaves.” The marchers shout back; the condemnatory man keeps shouting. But history—embodied in the marchers themselves and the forebears they evoke—pushes on. A strange, electrifying duet—between the heckling man and the Harlem marchers, yes, but also between the demonstrators, with their assertions of queer pride, and their civil rights ancestors, the former marching forward to the latter, the latter marching forward to a vision of freedom that is made more imaginable by Riggs’s work. It’s the movement forward that matters, the summarizing through line, the sneaking, radical suggestion that we are meant not only to see history in the present but also to imagine a queer Black present being superimposed on or rooted out of the past.
“He was adamantly committed to a vision of Blackness that was polyvocal, expressive, expansive—far more so than the broader culture’s own notions of Blackness at that time.”
Throughout his career, Riggs fluctuated between making films that offer critiques of America’s images of Black people as a group, past and present, and others that represent his own assertion of Black queerness into that collective image. It is tempting to separate Riggs’s films on Black queerness (the aforementioned Affirmations, Anthem, and Black Is . . . Black Ain’t as well as 1989’s revolutionary Tongues Untied) from his sharp treatises on the history of Blackness in media and popular culture (Ethnic Notions and 1992’s Color Adjustment). The latter films do not make the question of Black queerness explicit, whereas the former do, in every sense. And yet we must see them as different expressions of the same DNA. Voices seemingly in opposition, in Riggs’s work, are so often discovered to be in collusion with one another, undivorceable in their shared hold on what we think Blackness is and the further possibilities we can imagine for it. He was adamantly committed to a vision of Blackness that was polyvocal, expressive, expansive—far more so than the broader culture’s own notions of Blackness at that time. Which means there is room, in this vision, not only for Black queers but for the Cosbys and Murphys whose visions would seem to be in opposition to that queerness—room not only for free and open disclosures of HIV/AIDS but also for the suppressive, church-bound instincts that would render those disclosures invisible.
The sum of all of this is Blackness. Tongues untied imply their knotted sisters and brothers. Images persist in their audiences; what the audience does with those images—well . . . To watch Riggs’s work today is to feel, even as a Black queer man, rightfully admonished. We all ought to feel challenged by Riggs for his attention to our continued, desiring consumption of damaging images, of mammies and “uncles” and pickaninnies, of Blackness desexed or oversexed, Black womanhood devalued, Black manhood displaced, Black queerness near invisible—a consumption still so characterized, it seems, by inattention and complacency and the absence of analysis that these images’ mindless reiteration throughout history has been all but guaranteed. We should feel challenged: for not recognizing the silence that this history instills in us every day. For allowing that silence to do the talking, when, as Riggs says in Black Is . . . Black Ain’t, “There’s a cure for what ails us”—African Americans—“as a people”: rigorous, fraught, vibrant talk.
We know full well, if we’re paying attention, if we’re listening to Riggs, that our current leaps forward in representation—more Black faces on TV, more Black faces doing the dance of capital in public—have precedents. Earlier eras’ gallops toward nominal equality are a lesson and a promise. Our own progress is no less contingent, no less costly. In our era—the representation-forward moment of seeing oneself on-screen (“finally” being implicit)—to revisit Riggs’s work is to be encouraged to question everything we see. But the bedrock of his art is also the joyous, generous space it offers for reimagination. “Initiate me”: this is a Black, queer call to arms and self-recognition, as Riggs deploys it, but it is also a useful précis of the experience of watching his work. His staggering and frequently autobiographical chronicles of race, sexuality, and Black representation are, taken in sum, a cacophonous chamber of echoes as historical as it is personal. The films build on, trouble, question one another. First to last, they display genius levels of intellectual coherence. They are rigorous in their excavation of the means and ends of depictions of Black people and their experiences in American culture, from the blatantly damaging to the damagingly elided—Riggs’s love- and pain-saturated testimonies to Black queerness devastatingly underscore the latter reality.
Riggs was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1957; he was schooled, as an adolescent, in the American South as well as West Germany, before graduating magna cum laude from Harvard (where, he would later write, “there were no programs in lesbian/gay studies,” nor “lesbian/gay/bisexual students associations,” nor “out” faculty to mentor him, nor evidence of anything “ostensibly ‘gay,’” or “‘Black’” that “seemed to embrace the totality of me”) and from the University of California, Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. In his films—whether tackling the history of media or using expressive Black voices and bodies to assert affirmative (positive) independence—he operates by radical self-disclosure, modeling a generosity of spirit that was frequently denied him. Often appearing on-screen (in the form of winking text, if not in the flesh—but often, to be clear, in the flesh), he is the storyteller in chief.
Consider a story Riggs tells in his most widely known work, Tongues Untied—a story of queer initiation that somewhat anticipates one that Reginald T. Jackson will tell in Affirmations, only without the purity of Jackson’s sexual awakening. Riggs’s account is one of rejection: he rubs his body against that of another boy and is later scorned by an utterance of the word faggot. This is the stuff of secrets—a shameful incident—but Riggs recounts it directly to the camera, making eye contact with the viewer, and it has a strange, cathartic effect. Tongues Untied is, as its title states, grounded in this sense of release. It is a call to move toward such unfettered confession, to talk about it—not only for the sake of the young queer boys who, like Riggs, may live or have lived in shame, but also because these disclosures put the matter on the record. A Black man says, on camera, that he rubbed bodies, as a young boy, with another young boy. How can we then suggest that Black queerness—absent from so many politically mitigated, hemmed-in, selective visions of Blackness—does not exist?
What is remarkable is that, in this moment and throughout the film, Riggs seems to hold that word—faggot—aloft, apart from himself, with a sense of Is this me? Is this what I am? One commonality that makes Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment essential coconspirators with Riggs’s more explicitly queer work is precisely the observation of this kind of distance, between the word, nasty and slippery and accusatory, and the man himself. It parallels the gap between Black people on-screen, or as rendered grotesque by images, and Black people in themselves. It is the gap between American “mammies” and Black mothers. In Black Is . . . Black Ain’t, begun long into his illness and completed after he died by a group of his collaborators, Riggs recounts another formative encounter, in which he called someone Black and was again rebuffed—because, at the time, Black was not an identity one could safely, proudly embrace. Same for faggot, queer, colored. Yet some of these terms have been reclaimed. And the caricatures tracked in Ethnic Notions have also evolved, much in the way that Black American discourse is still making up its mind about the “N-word.” When Riggs takes to a film like Ethnic Notions to call his Black contemporaries to account, it is the people who—seeing America’s love for Sambo—became Sambo, and were loved, whom he had in mind.
Both of these stories, of being called faggot and calling someone Black, open out, as is Riggs’s method, into both the personal and the historical. Both waver between diametrically opposed emotional experiences (shame/pleasure, affinity/rejection). Both are apertures into broader explorations of identity and identification, excoriating yet sensitive studies of the senseless conflict imposed on Riggs’s inseparable identities—his queerness and his Blackness. If there is any single best way through any of this in Riggs’s work, to say nothing of in life, I haven’t found it. It’s the confusion of it all, the need to analyze, the need to question—above all, to question oneself—that Riggs so mesmerizingly captures. His method—ping-ponging between attitudes, saturated with expression—was, perhaps above all, vehemently intellectual, even when seeming to abandon concerns of the mind to freedoms of the body. The story of his early sexual encounters with another boy slips into a recounting of life in San Francisco after graduate school, a time when he felt that his own Blackness was rendered invisible in queer contexts. And it hardly ends there. It’s merely the beginning of the reckoning that Tongues Untied has in store: with Riggs’s long, fraught history of desire, in which whiteness dominated his younger notions of what was desirable. In the film, a photo of an anonymous young white man who became the object of that desire gradually fills the screen; it is a clean and handsome headshot, like a yearbook photo. Not a living body but a pure, almost alienatingly American image, heterosexual and clean, deployed here only to be disturbed and left behind by the thriving intimacies of Black queer men’s bodies that otherwise suffuse the film.
At Harvard, as a history major, Riggs studied “male homosexuality in American fiction and poetry.” At Berkeley, his territory was journalism, with a focus on documentary. Merge the two, with a practitioner such as Riggs at the helm, and you get love and accountability, manifest: “for us, by us” but unwilling to let “us” off the hook—even when we’re being celebrated.
Riggs’s work is in some ways an outgrowth of seeds sown by the generation of thinkers just preceding his, the generation of Donald Bogle (Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks), Michele Wallace (Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman), Angela Davis, and others. It is pungent with references to his ancestors: James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Marsha P. Johnson. It is also richly collaborative with some of his contemporaries. Essex Hemphill, for example, wrote spoken-word poetry for Tongues Untied that is so neatly in conversation with Riggs’s audiovisual poetry, so seamlessly integrated into the film, that it’s as if these two men were their own defiant school of so-called confessional poets, as fiery as Sylvia Plath, as sexually embodied as Anne Sexton, but adamantly Black. And at times, Hemphill’s body is as prominent and open to the audience on-screen as the filmmaker’s own. Riggs surrounded himself with his brothers. Anthem, Tongues Untied, and the rest stage miniature congregations, groupings of Black men dancing choreographed movements, delivering overlapping recitations, offering keenly embodied notions of self. “Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act,” Tongues Untied tells us. In the same film, we see a poster for Riggs’s fellow experimenter Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1989). It is a nod not only to that film but to that film’s mode of looking: for the Black queer past; toward its loosened, liberated future.
Riggs was a master of the cutting reference, such as in his own Hughesian insistence on the utterance “I, too,” which is itself a reference on Hughes’s part to Walt Whitman’s testament to “America singing” in Leaves of Grass; the through line, here, of the queerness of that “I,” in all three cases, should not be lost on us. Nor should the intentions behind Riggs’s withering mélange of clips—ranging from The Cosby Show, in which wealth is a point of pride; to Paul Robeson’s triumphant racial spectacle in The Emperor Jones; to a homophobic chant during a fraternity step routine in Spike Lee’s School Daze—all of which raise the question of why any of these people should be considered racial heroes to any degree. All of this is deployed, in Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment and Tongues Untied, to call our affinity for these depictions into question. Riggs wants us to second-guess ourselves—and, at other points, to affirm ourselves. To reach for and claim the I in “I, too” before seeing even Robeson come under fire and thinking, Him, too?
So: no mere referentiality, this. Nor are Riggs’s collaborations with other living artists. The choreographic phenom Bill T. Jones, for example, appears to us, dancing, in Black Is . . . , in what would appear to be a narrative non sequitur but for the fact that dancing, in Riggs’s films, is as much a language, an avenue for the disclosure of self, as actual language is. Bodies, for Riggs, do their own talking. Consider, in Ethnic Notions, the choreographer and historian Leni Sloan’s ironic and heartbreaking nod to the life and art of the tragic-heroic blackface performer Bert Williams. Sloan’s appearance in the film is initially in a talking-head interview, delivered as he sits at a piano. Later, Riggs and Sloan collapse the distinction between words and music. We see Sloan in costume and character, as Williams, slowly applying burnt cork to his face and monologuing into a mirror. It isn’t enough, the film says, to hear about Williams, to dip into the archival photos. We have to allow for historical transmission; we have to try to address the spirit of the man, to resurrect that spirit, in order to fully understand it.
It is a moment that anticipates the uncanny opening image of Black Is . . . : an unclothed Riggs, emerging out of the woods in what could be an early incident in the history of man, an ancestor—ancient but not primitive. This, too, reads as citational from a director whose previous feature film, Color Adjustment, had taken other deep reperformances of Black history, such as that found in Roots, to task. But Riggs wields bodies, including his own, in ways that force us to ground that abstract, academic notion of “the Black body”—the one that, in the recent tradition of Afropessimism, is degraded, unholy, irrecoverable, socially broken—in the real. It all amounts to too critical, too rich, too sustained an effort to surmise anything other than that Riggs saw himself and his work as contributions to an ongoing, variegated, lively Black tradition.
Though in discussing Riggs’s work we are often tempted to try to disentangle its strands (he is either the fierce chronicler of Black representation or the even fiercer queen-poet-savior of Black queerness), the sublime trick of his films is that his wrestling with his own identity—his shifting, vacillating, and, finally, liberated ideas of himself—is equally felt in the talking-head studies and the more overtly personal, experimental works. Look at the discursive structure of, say, Color Adjustment, with its propulsive attitude, with its statements from legendary Black actors (Diahann Carroll, Esther Rolle, and so on) about early forays into Blackness on television finding keen counterpoint in the awkward defenses of the sympathetic white producers who made those shows, who cosigned those images, whose ideas of Blackness were always mitigated by the mainstream and its market demands. There’s an organizational principle to Riggs’s work that, like the conflation of the Harlem and civil rights marches we see in Affirmations, cannot help but be dialectically disruptive, ever-moving, ever-shifting, but progressive—forward-looking—in essence.
Of course, Riggs’s examination and expression and embodiment of Black queerness took place in a singular historical moment—the time of AIDS—and that is yet another representational thread that his work synthesizes. Black Is . . . stands out as Riggs’s culminating work in this area and all others. It tackles a bundle of Black “issues”: colorism, homophobia, and other intraracial fault lines, the forces that imposed the silences that Riggs’s earlier work excavated and made apparent. HIV/AIDS is one such fault line, and not only for Black people, of course. But Black life is, as ever, Riggs’s presiding interest, one for which his work never excuses itself. Just as unapologetic as Black Is . . . , and no less representative an example of Riggs’s methods and sympathies, despite the seeming narrowness of its subject, the short film Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regret), from 1993, is about five Black gay men living with HIV—six, counting Riggs, who does not appear but is intensely present. No Regret is, characteristically, keenly attuned to the ethics of speaking out and coming forward, as grounded in the first person as Affirmations and Black Is . . ., as bewitched with the affective, intellectual, and political power of mixed media and performance as Tongues Untied and Ethnic Notions, as willingly myopic in its literal vision—training our eyes on lips and mannerisms, the pure, unabashed sense of embodiment—as all of the above. You can imagine someone seeing No Regret and reducing it to the usual covering of all the bases, given the subject, however various the men themselves—light-skinned and dark, American-born and Haitian, diverse in their ages and sizes and professions, distinct in their eloquence and mannerisms and upbringings—happen to be. HIV/AIDS stories have, from the start, with their emphasis on disclosure to family and sexual partners both, felt like secondary iterations of the queer coming-out story. And Riggs, knowing as much—pushing his subjects to reveal themselves—does not shy away from this frame. They talk about the day they learned (“I had expected it,” one of them says). They talk about their mothers, their lives growing up in church, about having cared for other men with the same affliction, about having seen the toll it takes—on bodies, on communities, on all kinds of relationships.
Riggs bolsters these narratives with his own interventions. Spirituals cry out during and between the individual stories, voices ushering us through with poetry and song. The five men themselves—all of them rendered, in this context, into spiritual testifiers—are initially obscured, their mouths and eyes appearing to us through irislike openings in a blank, black screen, as if their identities are meant to be protected. However, it is the irony of Riggs’s work, or one of them, that safety should come not from hiding but from coming forward. And so suddenly those peepholes into these men’s stories vanish; black foreground is rendered into sky-blue background; and the men are here, in front of us, wholly formed and still speaking, with images from their pasts and near-presents flashing up, on-screen, silently and without context. Riggs literalizes the condition of the closet—of fear, of shame—only to gently but without hesitation remove the veil. There’s something almost shocking about it, even now; the closet remains so persistent that for Riggs to open it up, all of a sudden, subverts—nearly damns—our expectations. This should not surprise us, of course. Riggs’s previous work has prepared us for everything here. And in the film that follows No Regret, Black Is . . ., he only continues to lift that veil. He, too, comes out—from behind the camera. He takes us as far as his hospital room, as he is being treated for the same disease—a disease that, as one of No Regret’s subjects reminds us, is just a disease: a medical fact. A fact of Black life as bare and plain as any other.
“Queerness inheres in Blackness just as Blackness inheres in queerness: there’s no room for either not to acknowledge the other.”
For Riggs, Blackness, as it exists in the world at large and in America particularly, is vast. If you learn only one thing from the man’s work, let it be this. It is Riggs’s central, most urgent claim that queerness inheres in Blackness just as Blackness inheres in queerness: there’s no room for either not to acknowledge the other. It is from this perch that Riggs insists on never-silence, on a unity that violates the accepted, politicized norms of difference: Black men contra Black women, Black queerness contra Blackness itself. It is from this perch that Riggs cleverly, movingly, twines his idea of Blackness, in Black Is . . . Black Ain’t, with the essence of his Big Mama’s gumbo—a knowing riff on the idea of the “melting pot,” so prominent in the American racial discourse of Riggs’s moment, that suggests that Blackness is a melting pot unto itself, holding a stew that includes the sum of all of us, from which we cannot be set apart because, like it or not, our flavors have already enriched the mix. Unsurprisingly, this is the film in which Riggs addresses the problem of colorism most explicitly. History arises here in so many ways; one of them is in his pointing out that Black people aren’t all one shade of Black, and that there are reasons for this, and that these reasons belong as much to the present as to the past.
Riggs finds beauty where others find racial identity in its most demeaned, compromised state. And where he sees beauty, he recognizes a correlative responsibility to it—to abandon ourselves to that stew, to draw power from it and stand united in it. Yet we cannot even approach the term Blackness, Riggs reminds us, without hyperawareness of its multiple, overlapping, heavy—tragically heavy—contingencies. It is no wonder that Riggs filled his work with images of himself: his emboldened, nude self, dancing, being touched, doing the touching, improvising. As if unshackled, untied—freed of the mitigating histories of caricature and erasure that so overwhelm the way we can even see a body like his, the ways that the history of images has trained that seeing. Because that history, too, is inherent in one notion of Blackness: the image, the idea that precedes, defines, exaggerates, and maligns the blood-pumping body, my own body as much as his.
Is it any wonder that Pat Buchanan and the like, in adamantly rejecting such bodies and freedoms, fought to reject—suppress—Riggs’s vision? It was framed, in bad faith, as a conflict over money. Politicians and commentators who have otherwise never cared about art, and have little stake in its making, claimed without truth that Riggs had received funding from the tax-supported National Endowment for the Arts, which gave them an excuse to raise a red flag to prevent Tongues Untied from airing on public television. For Riggs, the film on trial was a testament to “the vitality and significance of a community that traditionally has been silenced and ignored.”
It aired anyway, thanks to the conviction of the producers of the documentary series POV. It was prime-time television (a fact that anyone who has seen Color Adjustment must note with irony). This, as poet Jericho Brown has reminded us, means that Tongues Untied contains the first known instance of two men kissing on American television—a fact that, Brown also reminds us, seems to have slipped through the cracks of the annals of televisual representation. Yet what a radical thing: For the first known sighting, for audiences all over the country, of two men, tongues tied, to have appeared in a work of nonfiction. For it to be preceded, in slow-moving images, by liberated gestures, by men loving each other’s bodies, and by the camera doing much the same, moving upward and along a supine, Black, queer form, muscular and fine, the desirous object. For it to be an image of two Black, queer men—not a pair of blushing hetero actors with smooth, white faces, already levitating on the waves of allyship medals and industry recognition sure to follow; not a pair of heartthrobs for whom the kiss would, so far as the public is concerned, collapse the image-thin distance between the fact of who they are and the prevailing fiction of the role they’ve each chosen to play. But rather a pair of queer, Black men (dark-skinned ones, what’s more, as Riggs has taught us to notice), taking to the camera to perform the unthinkable, the unimaginable, the un-imaged.
Which is to say, for queer people, the perfectly ordinary. A rendition of the reality of these men and their desires, however staged. A kiss, slow and stirring, and all the more explicit for the further intimacies it implies. Confrontational in that sense of implication, all the more so for appearing so defiantly impervious to fear of homophobic confrontation—and to others’ fear of queer contamination. A kiss proximate to on-screen disclosures of HIV/AIDS. A dangerous exchange, surely. Whether those most endangered are the kissers themselves—virile, viral, unashamed—or the public whose image of them and men like them is so eminently shatterable depends on who’s watching.
Riggs, of course, was beholden to no such collective perceptions. Crucially, in Tongues Untied and his other autobiographical work, that freedom entails self-examination: an opening wide of his own histories of desire, his own attractions to the twined myths of whiteness and Blackness; a rooting out of the silences in which he, vulnerable as the rest of us, participated—until he didn’t. To see Riggs late in his life in Black Is . . . Black Ain’t, dying of AIDS and forthrightly attentive to the reality of that fact, is to see the man carrying out his work’s discursive, experimental through lines to the very end.
Despite the millions of viewers who saw Tongues Untied on public television, it is safe to say that many Americans alive today, Black or otherwise, have not had a chance to see that film, or, probably, any of Riggs’s other ones. Which is not to diminish the efforts of those who have been teaching this work since its creation, or those, in our new, digital century, who have kept it alive and circulating online. To watch Marlon Riggs in the twenty-first century is—still, and as it ever was—to be initiated. It is to emerge fresh with renewed preparedness.
And hungry. Clamoring with questions and imagination. What would Marlon Riggs have made of Black America today? What would he have made of RuPaul’s Drag Race, or Tyler Perry’s drag profiteering? Of Oprah Winfrey’s infamous demonizing myth of Black men “on the down low”? What would he have made of Moonlight and Get Out, of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Finding Your Roots? Of the fact that toward the end of his life Gil Scott-Heron—whose subject was once, famously, “faggots”—revealed he was HIV-positive? Or, for that matter, of the media monstrosity that was the O. J. Simpson trial?
What, furthermore, would Riggs have made of himself and his own legacy? Picture Riggs on Riggs, in a supernatural feat of posthumous self-examination as prescient and incisive as the films he made while still living. Picture Riggs writing himself into the history of Black images on television—standing back to look at what he has already done—by planting an image of himself, late in life, on-screen. Wedded, deliberately, to the origin story laid out for us in Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment. Picture Riggs as we see him in Black Is . . . Black Ain’t: a Black, queer man, dark-skinned, gaunt, dying—all of America’s nightmares, save perhaps the fact of a Black man dying, whittled down and boxed in, packaged and prepared for transmission into American living rooms everywhere. Picture Riggs manifested, now, as text. Cutting through the silence. Asking: Is this a positive image?
Picture Riggs, eyes wry and vulnerable, fearless, affirmed. Life-giving even in death. His was the tongue that, once untied, abandoned all memory of the knot. A positive image? Hear him saying: Yes. And proceed, freed, accordingly.