Call Marlon Riggs whatever you want. He describes himself as an “independent documentary producer,” but if you want to call him a Black gay filmmaker, fine. “If you want to say gay Black, fine. If you want to say Black only, fine.” It’s not the terms Riggs’ is worried about—those he’ll subvert six ways from Sunday—it’s the box they create that concerns him. And Riggs has no interest in being put in that box.
Those quotes come courtesy of an interview conducted with Riggs in 1992, gathered in a new set from The Criterion Collection: The Signifyin’ Works of Marlon Riggs—eight films from Riggs, one documentary about Riggs, and a slew of bonus material contextualizing Riggs’ work within Black and queer cinema.
It’s a shame Riggs’ work isn’t better known. His interests in how representation in pop culture produces mass assumptions make him an ideal candidate for reappraisal. Take his first film, Ethnic Notions from 1986: Riggs traces racially charged images from the antebellum South to 20th-century cinema and marketing to show how anti-Black stereotypes continually manifested throughout the years to fit the needs of the narrative. Powerful stuff, some of which will feel familiar, but the extent to which they’re employed remains staggering.
Rolling Stone film critic K. Austin Collins, who penned the booklet essay accompanying Criterion’s set, says Riggs “had a way of seeing everything at once.” You feel that in both Ethnic Notions and 1989’s Tongues Untied, an audiovisual poem incorporating documentary, performance, mantra and direct address to explore homophobia in the Black community and racism in white gay culture. To be Black or gay is to belong to a community. To be both is to live as an outsider, and Riggs did everything he could to bring those outside experiences in.
Both Ethnic Notions and Tongues Untied have the look and sound of ’80s PBS specials, which is how most saw them. Credit goes to the National Endowment for the Arts for funding assistance—much to Pat Buchanan’s chagrin—and POV for broadcasting them. But the movies were programmed in the dead of night, as one station manager told Riggs, “So no one ran across it by accident.” There’s a line in Ethnic Notions that echoes throughout Riggs’ work: “You know, it’s no disgrace being a Black man, but it’s terribly inconvenient.”
And yet Riggs’ films remain hopeful. His final, 1995’s Black Is… Black Ain’t, continues the threads Riggs started pulling on in ’86 and brings together a chorus of conflicting voices to discuss Blackness and locate the gaps between the definitions. What is the role of a Black man? A Black woman? Black gays and lesbians? And what about the word “black”? What does it mean to be called “African”? To be called “colored”? The more voices he incorporates, the more division Riggs finds.
Where to find unity among this diversity? Riggs’ answer: “Big Mama’s gumbo.” It sounds cute at first but builds as Riggs returns again and again to the pot. And it probably wouldn’t have worked if Riggs hadn’t instilled the urgency of mortality in Black Is… Black Ain’t. Riggs died at the age of 37 from AIDS-related complications while making the movie. His final days and final thoughts are woven throughout, reminding us that we can’t talk forever. Black Is… Black Ain’t ends with Riggs giving his gumbo recipe. It’s his metaphor for harmony, but also what he’s dreaming of from his deathbed.
Well, technically, Black Is… Black Ain’t doesn’t end with the gumbo recipe: It ends with a shot of Riggs dancing. Riggs loved dancing and incorporated it into his work. Dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones is one of the many interviews collected in Criterion’s jam-packed set, and he recounts meeting Riggs. “He had a firm handshake,” Jones recalls, “And he looked me straight in the eye and asked: ‘Do you see me?’”
That’s a question a lot of people are asking these days, and it’s a good one. In the booklet essay, Collins cites Riggs’ recollections of his time at Harvard: “No programs in lesbian/gay studies,” no evidence of anything “ostensibly black,” nothing that “seemed to embrace the totality of me.”
Riggs left that totality in his films, his activism, his gumbo. It’s time to see him. He is Marlon Riggs, a signifying filmmaker of American cinema.