Published on July 15th, 2020 | by Taylor Cuddihy


Black Is…Black Ain’t – Spotlight on Marlon Riggs (Part 4)

Our final piece on Marlon Riggs covers his posthumously released documentary, “Black Is…Black Ain’t.”  Taylor wraps up Riggs’ legacy and his zeal for black activism.

“I think we have such an obsession with naming ourselves because during most of our history we’ve been named by somebody else.” – Angela Davis

One of the core ideas of Marlon Riggs’ documentary work has been the limitations of popular understandings of Black identity, and the limitations of depictions of Black life in general. From the slavery reinforcing stereotypes of 19th century culture documented in Ethnic Notions (1986), through the paucity of authentic images of Black life on twentieth century TV explored in Color Adjustment (1991), and finally to the ways in which restrictive notions of Black masculinity have negatively impacted the lives of Black gay men in Tongues Untied (1989)–over and over again what we see is how American culture and society has defined and represented blackness in limited ways. Building on his criticism of homophobia in the Black community in Tongues Untied, Black Is…Black Ain’t (1995) focuses on the many complex ways in which the Black community has reinforced reductive and restrictive ideas about blackness. This film, completed as Riggs was dying in the hospital as a result of complications from AIDS, is above all a celebration of the multiplicity and rich diversity of Black identity, arguing against the idea that there is such a thing as a “true” or essential Black identity.

This is a posthumously released film, and as such does not necessarily reflect what it would have been in its final form had Riggs survived. Instead it stands not only as an expression of his own voice but a tribute to, as the opening titles put it, Riggs’ “vision and humanity.” The two other directors, Christiane Badgely and Nicole Atkinson, make use of Riggs’ footage, voice over narration and interviews to craft a loving memorial to their friend and collaborator. Riggs appears throughout the film being interviewed from his hospital bed. He reflects on his own deteriorating health and the physical effects of AIDS, but also talks about the film’s project and what he is trying to say with it. The film therefore explicitly foregrounds a sense of personal subjectivity, even more so than Tongues Untied, as the circumstances of its production mean that it serves in part as a document of its own making. We see not only the implementation of Riggs’ aesthetic ideas, but also Riggs discussing the personal meaning of these ideas. But since the film is also a tribute to Riggs’ memory, it has a multiplicity of voices not only in terms of the people profiled in Riggs’ footage but in who is deciding how the footage itself is arranged, allowing it to formally represent the film’s thematic emphasis on a Black communal spirit.

His own impending mortality has him reflecting not only on his own history and identity as a Black gay man, but identity “from a global perspective,” as he says. Riggs puts forth a series of questions that get to the heart of what the film is trying to say: “How do we keep together as a people in the face of all our differences? How do we maintain a sense of communal selfhood, if you will? Who’s in the community and who’s not? There’s been a history of excluding other black folks from ‘community’ in this country… to the detriment of our empowerment as an overall people.” The film explores many of the ways in which people’s blackness has been questioned, how people have been criticized for being either “too Black” or “not Black enough,” whether due to skin colour, embrace of African culture, socioeconomic status, religion, sexuality, or gender expression.


The film argues that the Black community needs to move beyond this question of what is and isn’t “properly” Black, which only serves to force people into restrictive boxes. Riggs describes the Black community as one “confined by its own limited notions of identity.” Black feminist scholar bell hooks talks about the difference between “community” and “communion.” She notes that there is alot of talk of unity and community among black people, but perhaps communion is a more useful way of envisioning things, as “the root meaning of it suggests that our union is fundamentally based on the notion that we must be willing and able to communicate with one another.” For hooks, too often when Black people evoke “unity” it involves a flattening out of differences to present the notion that Black people are all alike.

At the core of the film’s critique of restrictive notions of Black identity is a forceful indictment of the patriarchal, sexist nature of Black political movements. “Black masculinity. Black manhood. Isn’t that what it ultimately became all about, the redemption of an emasculated black male identity?” Riggs’ voiceover asks. Throughout the history of Black struggles against oppression there has been a recurring strain in the rhetoric of Black leaders of Black male emasculation and castration. With so much emphasis on the “Black man” at the expense of discussing the unique problems of Black women, Black liberation becomes equated with an assertion of male dominance and aggressive masculinity, and Blackness itself becomes equated with maleness. Revisiting ideas explored in Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment, Riggs describes how racist depictions of Black people have represented them as “backwards” due to gender, with Black women presented as being strong and therefore unfeminine, and black men seen as childlike, docile, and weak, and therefore non-masculine. Black men have responded to this by framing their struggle as a reassertion of manhood in the face of emasculation, but this phallocentric discourse just serves to reinforce limited views of gender that continue to cast women in a subordinate position. As bell hooks bluntly puts it, “If the Black struggle is reduced to ‘it’s a dick thing,’ then we’re all in serious trouble.”

This emphasis on redeeming Black masculinity serves to perpetuate homophobia as well. Riggs states in his voice over that “Because of our sexuality we’ve been treated as outcasts. To be gay or lesbian is not to be Black. To be Black is to be heterosexual.” He displays a quote from prominent African American studies scholar Molefi Asanti which states that “Homosexuality is a deviation from Afrocentric thought,” as well as a far blunter one from rapper Ice Cube: “True niggers ain’t faggots!” Poet Essex Hemphill, who also appeared in Tongues Untied, argues that the idea that a person’s blackness is diminished because of their homosexuality “…is purely out of the sense that Black men have been chattled, Black men have been lynched, Black men have been shot, beaten, brutalized by the police, the government every which way,” so that some people view “Black homosexuality as the final break in Black masculinity.”


Here the film skillfully expresses the complex ways in which notions of racial identity become inextricably entwined with notions of gender and sexual identities, showing how discourses of Black masculinity have served to reinforce the interrelated processes of sexism and homophobia. Riggs, meanwhile, explains his own perspective on masculinity. To him “being a man” means simply to be a human being, which entails possessing both masculinity and femininity. “When a man can be feminine as well as manly, whatever those terms mean to you, when you can be both comfortably, then you’ve achieved what it is to be a man, which is to be human,” he says. Riggs presents an inclusive and wide-ranging vision of masculinity, rejecting essentialist notions of identity by stressing that masculinity and femininity are not absolutes or in opposition to each other, but are indefinite, slippery terms that vary according the individual perceptions of each person.

There are far too many complex ideas and issues raised in Black Is…Black Ain’t to  delve into adequately here. At various points Riggs touches on the history of Black representation and the impact this has on how Black people think of themselves, the intersectionality of racial, sexual and gender identities, the role of the Black church in building community but also perpetuating sexism and homophobia, the historical erasure of contributions of people from marginalized communities to social movements, the role of Black music in creating a shared Black cultural history, and much more. He does so while synthesizing the poetic approach of Tongues Untied with the more traditional style of Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment. He moves between historical footage, poetic monologues, dance performances, personal reflections in voice over and a wide variety of interviews, creating a freewheeling audiovisual patchwork that seeks to encompass the enormous complexity of Black identity. Riggs clearly had alot on his mind in the final days of his life, and it is a testament to his restless passion, creativity, and intellect that even on his deathbed he was committed to exploring these ideas.

At one point Riggs explains his vision for the scenes he filmed of himself walking naked through a forest, an image that opens the film. It’s metaphorical significance is key to the entire project, he explains, as it represents himself wandering through the clutter of his life and his work, “searching through the attempts by society at large to cover you and to confine you into some space in which you’re not seen for the naked truth of who you are.”  This is perhaps the ultimate message of Riggs’ documentary work, how restrictive social norms of race, sexuality, and gender impose false borders around our senses of self. As American culture continues to grapple with its long history of marginalizing and oppressing racial and sexual minorities, Riggs’ thoughtful and complex and view of identity resonates with the struggles of the entire LGBTQ+ community. Though Riggs died tragically young, his powerfully inventive, socially engaged use of documentary form and his empathetic and warmly humanistic perspective lives on and is sorely missed today.

About the Author

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lives in Drayton, Ontario. He received his MA in Film Studies from Carleton University in Ottawa. His cinematic interests include the silent era, Classical Hollywood and 1980s Hong Kong action.

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