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Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Race, Sex & Cinema: The World of Marlon Riggs

By Ashley Clark

Tongues Untied (1989), Courtesy of Signifyin' Works and Frameline Distribution

Filmmaker, gay rights activist, poet, professor, provocateur: the late, great Marlon Riggs (1957—94) spoke truth to power through his work in bracingly eloquent fashion. Race, Sex & Cinema: The World of Marlon Riggs (Feb 6—14) is an expansive celebration timed to mark the 25th anniversary of Riggs’ passing from AIDS-related complications, and the 30th anniversary of his best-known film, the seminal Tongues Untied, which opens this series on Wednesday, February 6.

Tongues Untied (1989) is a dense, lyrical essay film which explores the joy and pain of the black, gay, male experience in America—from the freedom of erotic self-expression to the corrosive effects of homophobia manifested both personally and systemically. It combines performance poetry (from Riggs’ friend and colleague Essex Hemphill, among others), stylized direct address, and archival footage from various civil rights protests. Its pulsating, fragmentary form reflects the inherently complex nature of its subject matter.

Riggs was a master of distilling difficult ideas into accessible and gripping dispatches, as evidenced by the two feature-length documentaries he made before and after Tongues Untied: the Emmy award-winning Ethnic Notions (1986) and Color Adjustment (1992). Both are supremely cogent and persuasively argued treaties on the evolution and perpetuation of deep-rooted anti-black stereotypes in American cinema (the former) and television (the latter). The crispness and clarity of Riggs’ nonfiction work dates back to his UC Berkeley graduate thesis film Long Train Running: A History of the Oakland Blues (co-directed with Peter Webster, 1981), and runs through his short films Anthem (1991), Affirmations (1990), and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (1992), all of which present gay black men’s voices as a resounding response to the rhetorical question posed by Riggs in Tongues Untied: “What future lies in our silence?”

Riggs’ final film, which he worked on even as he struggled to fight the disease which would eventually claim his life, is the searing Black Is… Black Ain’t (1994), a fearless and thought-provoking contribution to debates around black identity within black communities. Completed by friends and colleagues following Riggs’ untimely death, it freely blends spoken word, song, commentary from scholars like bell hooks and Angela Davis, and intimate interviews with Riggs— filmed from his hospital bed in sequences—which resound as simultaneously harrowing and hopeful. Black Is… Black Ain’t is a fitting and moving testament to Riggs’ brilliance.

Though an undoubted original, Riggs did not exist in a vacuum, and Race, Sex & Cinema includes work by a number of his keenest influences and contemporaries in the world of experimental and queer-themed filmmaking, including Trinh T. Minh-ha, Lourdes Portillo, Peter Rose, Jeanne C. Finley, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Su Friedrich, Riggs’ friend and Transatlantic colleague Isaac Julien, and the pioneering black lesbian director Cheryl Dunye, who has cited Riggs as her “forefather.” There is also a program of short films about the novelist, memoirist, and activist James Baldwin, a black, queer, intellectual hero to Riggs.

Brother to Brother (2004) 
In addition, Race, Sex & Cinema spotlights work directly influenced by Riggs, including a program of formally daring, thematically adventurous shorts by contemporary filmmakers including Tiona Nekkia McClodden, Elegance Bratton, and Martine Syms; Barry Jenkins’ richly cinematic, Academy Award-winning invocation for black queer self-acceptance Moonlight; and a 15th anniversary screening of Rodney Evans’ Brother to Brother, a tender character study of a young gay artist played by Anthony Mackie.

Brother to Brother takes its title from the hypnotic incantation which begins Riggs’ Tongues Untied, a publicly-funded film which found itself under harsh criticism and threats of censorship from right-wing politicians and media watchdogs when it screened on PBS. The eloquent Riggs, of course, was more than capable of standing up for himself, and penned an op-ed in The New York Times in 1992 which concluded with this stinging rejoinder:

“Needless to say, the insult in this brand of politics extends not just to blacks and gays, the majority of whom are taxpayers, and would therefore seem entitled to some measure of representation in publicly financed art. The insult confronts all who now witness and are profoundly outraged by the quality of political—one hesitates to say Presidential—debate. The vilest form of obscenity these days is in our nation’s leadership.”

These strong words remain deeply resonant in 2019, a fraught time and a perfect moment to dive deep into the world of this one-of-a-kind artist.

Race, Sex & Cinema: The World of Marlon Riggs runs Feb 6—14

Ashley Clark is senior repertory and specialty film programmer at BAM.

© 2018 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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