From Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment to Tongues Untied and now BLACK IS...BLACK AIN'T, Marlon Riggs consistently pushed the comfort level of Americans -- black and white-- by forcing us to examine the images we hold of each other. His work has been both praised and vilified on the floor of Congress. The Beltway brouhaha brought on by Patrick Buchanan 's selectively -- and illegally -- edited segment of Tongues Untied to attack public funding of the arts, thrust the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning director into the public spotlight where he became an articulate and tireless advocate of the National Endowment for the Arts.
With BLACK IS...BLACK AIN'T, Riggs focuses attention on the "isms"that divide and separate, and challenges black people to "reconcile themselves to each other, to our differences ... We have to get over the notion that you can only be unified as a people as long as everybody agrees. You know we don't achieve freedom by those means."
For centuries American culture has stereotyped black Americans, but equally devastating have been the constraining and often contradictory definitions of "blackness" African Americans have imposed on each other. The right attire; hair from "conk" to Afro; ghetto slang or "proper" speech; "true" black religion versus the false; macho man or super woman; authentic, Afro-centric, or Euro-centric; sexuality and gender roles: Each one of these has been used as a litmus test in defining the real black man and the true black woman. But is there an "essential" black identity? Can blackness be reduced to a single acceptable set of experiences that African Americans should share or even aspire to?
BLACK IS...BLACK AIN'T forcefully confronts the identification of blackness with a hyper-masculinity born of the '60s Black Power movement. Colorism, the black church, the Civil Rights movement, family -- all continue to be defining factors in today's black communities. BLACK IS...BLACK AIN'T brings it all to the table, knowing, as Riggs says, that "there's a cure for what ails us as a people, and that is for us to talk to each other. We've got to start talking about the ways in which we hurt each other ... because nobody can unload the pain or the shame or the guilt by not speaking."
From gang members on the streets of South Central Los Angeles to farmers in the Georgia Sea Islands; from a corner juke joint in Mississippi to the middle-class suburbs of Washington, DC, Riggs questions the restrictions inherent in "black unity." We hear from many who have felt silenced within their own communities of color because their skin shade, class, sexuality, gender, or even speech has labeled them either "too black" or "not black enough." Cultural critics including Angela Davis, bell hooks, Michele Wallace, Barbara Smith, Cornel West, and musician Maulana Karenga, choreographer Bill T. Jones, and poet Essex Hemphill provide insightful commentary about their own experiences.
Tying these diverse elements together is Marlon Riggs's own story of difference as a black gay person with AIDS. Hospitalized for AIDS-related complications in November 1993, Riggs was no longer able to come to the editing room. He became instead an on-screen character in his own film -- as seen from his hospital bed. "Hey, I'm wasting my time if I'm not devoting every moment to thinking about how I can communicate to black people, so that we start to look at each other, [so that ]we start to see each other."On April 5, 1994 Riggs died of AIDS. BLACK IS...BLACK AIN'T, Marlon Riggs's final meditation on the African American experience, is a fitting capstone to his legacy.