Published on June 19th, 2020 | by Taylor Cuddihy


Ethnic Notions – Spotlight on Marlon Riggs (Part 1)

Taylor begins a multi-part series of essays on the influential and captivating work of experimental documentarian, Marlon Riggs. Today he looks at his film Ethnic Notions.

We’re moving ahead in time this week with the first in a series of essays about documentarian and activist Marlon Riggs. Riggs’ work in the 80s and 90s focused on the intersection of racial and sexual identity, as his films and writing explored the lives of queer black men in America and their interrelated experiences of homophobia and racism. His documentary work placed a spotlight on the history of racism and homophobia in popular media and sought to challenge popular discourses surrounding blackness, masculinity, and homosexuality. By exposing the limitations of these discourses and charting a new course that amplified the voices of marginalized communities, Riggs showcased the diversity of black lives that had been rendered invisible by much of American mass culture.

First, I’ll be discussing Riggs’ 1986 documentary Ethnic Notions. This hour long piece created for television is a history of the most common racial stereotypes about black people that have permeated American culture since the early 1800s. Starting from the beginnings of minstrel culture in the 1820s, the film traces the development of stereotypical characters like the “Mammy” and the “Sambo” through the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement, ending with a brief discussion of black characters in popular media in the 70s and 80s.


Riggs’ later films would experiment with documentary form, but Ethnic Notions takes a largely traditional stylistic approach, featuring voiceover narration (provided by Esther Rolle) which introduces archival footage and images of the cultural works in discussion, intercut with talking head interviews of historical experts lending context and analysis. While this approach is more straightforward than his later work, it allows the film to clearly and cogently express its central argument about the use of stereotypical depictions of black people to reinforce racist values that serve as implicit (and often explicit) defenses of slavery and white supremacy.

The film offers a convincing and compelling argument for the relationship between black stereotypes and the defense of slavery, noting that the advent of minstrelsy and the creation of racial caricatures like the “Sambo” coincided with the rise of the abolitionist movement. Popular images, songs and theatrical performances depicted black people as docile and happily servile, contributing to the popular notion that slavery was good for “inferior” blacks. Distorting the brutally dehumanizing realities of slavery, white Americans were bombarded with images of happy slaves and kindly masters, and the idea that slavery was a benign institution was broadcast widely in the period before the Civil War.

The film is adept at showing how the nature of black stereotypes shifted with the times depending on the specific political needs of white society. After the Civil War, as black people gained more freedom and moved to Northern, urban areas in greater numbers, popular images of them began to change from the happily subservient slave to the savage brute, unfit to be an equal member of society. One historian in the film argues that such a shift occurred because the new stereotype of the violent savage previously would have been unhelpful to the pro-slavery cause, as to suggest that black people were assertive and uncontrollable would imply that they desired freedom, when the slaveholders sought to represent the idea that they were content with their enslavement. By making the many historical connections between black stereotypes and defences of slavery explicit, the film powerfully underscores just how vile and pernicious such stereotypes are, how directly rooted they are in racist institutions and white supremacist ideology.


As the film moves into the early twentieth century, it discusses the career of Bert Williams, a popular entertainer who sometimes performed in blackface despite being black himself (a common practise for black entertainers at the time). In a moment that presages the use of performance in his next documentary Tongues Untied (1989), Riggs showcases Leni Sloan, a musician and choreographer who does a modern take on Williams’ act. Sloan as Williams addresses the camera directly and becomes gradually sadder as he explains the absurd situation where he, a successful black entertainer, is forced to perform demeaning black stereotypes and deal with racist segregation and discrimination. Here Riggs temporarily abandons the traditional documentary and its facts-and-experts approach in favour of a more personal, poetic form of expression that addresses the film’s key themes with greater emotional directness. He skillfully depicts the bind of the black artist in a white supremacist society, being given an opportunity to showcase his talents but only in a way which conforms to racist, white expectations of black people.

Ethnic Notions ends with a brief discussion of black stereotypes in pop culture that were recent when the film was made. There is clearly much more to say about the continuance of black caricatures in pop culture after the Civil Rights era, but the film is hampered by its one-hour runtime. However, Riggs’ subsequent films would begin to interrogate the racism of his own contemporary society, while also bringing sexuality to the discussion in a bigger way. I’ll look at how Riggs brings in these new ideas while also developing a unique, more personal formal approach when I discuss Tongues Untied next week.


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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