Did We Fail Marlon Riggs?

A thoughtful BAM retrospective celebrates the groundbreaking works of a director who challenged racism and homophobia.

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Photo: Signifyin' Works and Frameline Distribution.

In April 1994, the Associated Press published a story on how HIV+ patients were starting to live longer. A study out of San Francisco had revealed that preventative therapies for pneumonia, and European research into the antiviral drug AZT, were each prolonging the lives of HIV+ patients, though there was much more that needed to be done to control the epidemic. As of that month, some two million people had died of AIDS-related illnesses; the infection rate was alarming and escalating. That year alone, HIV/AIDS claimed the lives of more than 700,000 people. One of them was 37-year-old filmmaker Marlon Riggs. His films on race, sexuality, gender and HIV/AIDS had earned him stature as one of the most provocative nonfiction filmmakers in the US.

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In just eight years, Riggs directed eight landmark films. A mixture of documentaries and shorts, they not only secured his artistic patrimony but desperately sought to rescue the legacies of countless African Americans who, despite the achievements of the civil rights movement, were still battling centuries-long oppression and racism. Growing up in Texas, Georgia and West Germany, Riggs had experienced racism and homophobia first-hand; it is why he’d petitioned the history department at Harvard, from which he graduated with honors in 1978, to let him study the intersection between the two. Harvard’s approval allowed him to research what became an alternative history of America — a history he could only tell on film.

Riggs’ films are at the center of a retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music called Race, Sex and Cinema: The World of Marlon Riggs. Running Feb. 6 through Feb. 14, it also features works that were influenced by his legacy, including Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ rapturous Oscar-winning film, which on Feb. 9 will be paired with Riggs’ 1990 short film Affirmations. A celebration of queer African-American men, the latter films also deals with homophobia within the Black community. After the attack on Empire actor Jussie Smollett, an openly gay, African-American man, Affirmations feels eerily timely, especially as people online rallied to Smollett’s side and against racism and homophobia.

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The dichotomy between progress and oppression was the driving force in Riggs’ work. He couldn’t help but celebrate the richness of the African-American experience but condemned the indifference and the hatred to which it has often been subjected.

In Color Adjustment, Riggs’ 1992 film about African-American representation on TV, the legendary actress Esther Rolle commented how “Blacks returned [from World War II] after fighting for freedoms they weren’t allowed to have.” This chilling notion becomes more so when juxtaposed to the opening of the film, which establishes “a picture of the American dream.” Featuring interviews with scholars and performers, Color Adjustment showcases what was thought to be progress in the film and TV industry three and four decades ago, when it shifted from portrayals of African Americans as comic relief and servant-mammy stereotypes to having Diahann Carroll headline Julia, a sitcom that ran three seasons on NBC.

Carroll, who appears in the film along with producer Norman Lear and narrator Ruby Dee, remembered not being allowed to watch Amos ‘n’ Andy as a child because her parents considered it a harmful depiction of African Americans, a perpetuation of minstrelsy. She understood that Julia was only a small step toward representation, not its culmination.

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Color Adjustment was also the follow-up to Riggs’ debut feature, Ethnic Notions, which chronicled almost two centuries’ worth of dehumanizing representations of Black people in American culture, from Uncle Tom (a name that Riggs himself was called in school) to D.W. Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation, which infamously led to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. Color Adjustment feels, if anything, more tragic today: just look at luxury brands like Prada trying to get away with selling Sambo figurines; or the film industry itself celebrating works like Green Book, which clings to the Hollywood obsession with the magical Negro as a means to fix racism. That Green Book is an Oscar frontrunner in the same year as Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman and Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk is proof that Riggs and his legacy remain with us, reminding us that racism is ever-present, Green Book adding only insult to longstanding injury.

Jenkins, in fact, is Riggs’ direct spiritual descendant. As filmmakers, they’re among a select few who have mastered the complex relationship between rightful anger and a celebration of life. Jenkins’ delicate adaptation of James Baldwin’s Beale Street, for instance, highlights the beauty of Black romance and sexuality while reminding us how they’re each constantly threatened by white supremacy. In many ways, it makes a perfect companion to Riggs’ 1989 documentary Tongues Untied, whose 30th anniversary screening will be on Feb. 6 at BAM, followed by a discussion with Riggs’ collaborator Vivian Kleiman, filmmakers Yance Ford and Thomas Allen Harris, and moderated by historian Tavia Nyong’o. In the film, Riggs combines poetry, dance and personal history to rejoice in the beauty of being queer while showcasing the ways in which society excluded Black LGBTQ people from participation and representation. Watching a clip of comedian Eddie Murphy performing a homophobic standup routine makes it hard not to think of the Kevin Hart controversy, in which the oppressed becomes the oppressor.

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Watching the films in the retrospective, I wonder if we failed Marlon Riggs. Two decades after his untimely death, his films are as relevant as they were during their original release. Every day we see the ways in which white supremacy, homophobia and intolerance refuse to die; they’re merely the flip side of equality, freedom and the pursuit of happiness. Perhaps Riggs would tell us not to lose hope; he certainly didn’t. He kept working as his body continued to betray him, as a cruel virus forced him to take his last breath. Riggs died in the midst of making Black Is…Black Ain’t. He worked on it from his hospital bed and appears in it, imparting wisdom and kindness.

Black Is…Black Ain’t was the perfect swan song. It’s a study in contrasts: the way in which masculinity and homosexuality wrestle with each other; in which matriarchies overtake the role of patriarchies without any of the credit; in which African-Americans are asked to be the “right kind” of Black. Near the end of the film, Riggs recounts a dream in which Harriet Tubman appears by his bedside and quietly watches him. The legendary abolitionist who helped 70 slaves escape to their freedom becomes his guiding angel, the being sent by his ancestors to help him move on to whatever would follow his life. “As long as I have Harriet and Black Is…Black Ain’t to go traveling with, I’m gonna cross that river,” Riggs tells us. Watching the work he left behind, the wild river suddenly feels surmountable for us, too.