This month, the Criterion Channel is celebrating the groundbreaking work and enduring legacy of the late queer Black filmmaker, activist, poet and educator Marlon Riggs. Race, Sex & Cinema: The World of Marlon Riggs features a complete retrospective of his still searingly urgent, provocative, nuanced, and beautifully crafted video work exploring Black identity and representation, the intersection of queerness and Blackness, homophobia and racism, and the stigma around HIV/AIDS. Karen Everett’s 1996 feature documentary I Shall Not Be Removed: The Life of Marlon Riggs is also included, along with five contemporary short films that reflect Riggs’ continuing impact on today’s artists. The programme also features a new conversation with Criterion guest programmer Ashley Clark, who curated a season of Riggs’ work at New York’s BAM last year, and Riggs’ friend and frequent collaborator, filmmaker Vivian Kleiman. Ahead of the collection’s launch on Sunday October 18th, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke with both Ashley Clark and Vivian Kleiman about their relationship to Riggs and his work.
Kleiman first met Riggs in the early 80s when he was as a recent journalism masters graduate from the University of California, Berkeley, where he later returned to teach. “He came to work for a video production company that was in my workspace here in the East Bay Area,” Kleiman recalls. “It was shared with several documentary filmmakers, mostly folks who were working in the arena of public television. Marlon and I very swiftly became the best of friends. When he started to talk about making a film about Black caricatures and their impact in popular culture, which would become his first full-length documentary Ethnic Notions, I invited him to use the extra desk in my office—and my then state-of-the-art IBM Selectric typewriter—to sit down and write out a proposal or two. Since I was already an experienced filmmaker I kind of served as a producing mentor, but no one was really thinking about roles or titles, it was just about the pleasure of storytelling with images.”
Riggs died at the age of 37 in 1994 from complications due AIDS, but Vivian remained connected to her friend’s work as a board member, since its foundation in 1991, of Signifyin’ Works, the non-profit Riggs established “to produce and distribute audio-visual material exploring the history and culture of African Americans”. Since his death it has continued to “promote his work and legacy around the world.” In 2018 it occurred to Kleiman that the following year would mark the 30th anniversary of the premiere of Riggs’ best-known work, Tongues Untied, which was first shown publicly at the 1989 American Film Institute (AFI) Video Festival. “I wasn’t sure if there would be any interest in celebrating Tongues Untied today,” she recollects. “I knew that there would be people who would care about Marlon as a historic figure in the world of documentary filmmaking, but I really didn’t know if his work would speak generally to a new audience.” While exploring how to mark the anniversary of this landmark film, Vivian was introduced to BAM programmer Ashley Clark, who was already keen to shine a spotlight on Riggs.
“Part of my job as a repertory programmer is to identify figures and themes in cinema whom I feel have not had the sufficient attention lavished on them commensurate to their skills and brilliance,” Clark told The Queer Review. “When I got the job at BAM in 2017, Marlon Riggs was someone who was absolutely at the top of my list as a figure whose work I wanted to bring together, amplify, and introduce to new audiences, particularly young queer artists, filmmakers, and writers who may not even realise that they’ve got this incredible forefather who has made all of this really dynamic work that speaks to the present, not just in its very frank and open discussion of Black queer sexuality, but also around issues like censorship, and in the way that discourse is framed.”
“Growing up in the UK in a time before streaming, and a time before cinephile culture meant access, Riggs was somebody that I read about and learned about more than actually watching. So I felt like I knew about his films before I’d seen them,” Clark told us. “My real introduction to his work was Ethnic Notions, which I watched specifically in the research of my book Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. Marlon Riggs made Ethnic Notions in 1986 which is a very thoughtful and cogent analysis of how anti-Black stereotypes were deliberately created in American media, and how they spread throughout society and culture, and politics and legislation. The film tracks how these stereotypes have metastasised and changed, and how they might look in the future. It was a really essential film for me as I was coming to understand Bamboozled’s commentary on race and media in America, and I think the way that Marlon Riggs sets out the case is very scholarly, but it’s also extremely accessible, and I think that’s a trademark of Riggs’ work.”
Although Ethic Notions was Clark’s own introduction to Riggs’ work, he’d suggest anyone coming to Race, Sex & Cinema who is unfamiliar with the films to start with Tongues Untied, “It’s a touchstone work,” says Clark. “It’s extremely emblematic of Riggs’ work in general, because it’s rigorously intelligent, it’s poetic, it’s playful, and he brings a lot of himself to it. This was the first of his films that he was front and centre in. So I think Tongues Untied is not only a great introduction to his work and his world, but also to him as a person. Nothing else really looks like Tongues Untied either. One of the greatest nights I’ve ever had as a programmer was showing it as the opening night film of the BAM series in 2019. We had 300 people in to watch this magical film from 1989, that very few people in that audience had seen before, and the conversations I had after the screening were really all about the style and the form and the artistry of the film. Today, in many ways, there’s often a lack of marriage between form and style with political and sociological content in films, and I think that’s one thing that makes Marlon’s work so special.”
It was while working on Tongues Untied in the late 80s that Riggs was diagnosed as HIV positive. Kleiman recalls the impact receiving that news had on Riggs and his vision for the film, “When he first conceived of Tongues Untied I remember him coming down the hall of our office space and he had that glint in his eye, and he goes, ‘I have my next project.’ He’d already started working on Color Adjustment, but then he had this idea of doing a short piece, it was going to be 10 or 12 minutes; the audio was going to be poetry by Black gay men, and the images were going to be created out of what he would hunt and gather. So on the first day of filming Marlon and I, and about half a dozen of his friends from this group, Black Gay Men United, sauntered over to a festival in Oakland and just started grabbing images with this new camera. We took turns, the camera went from his shoulder to my shoulder. The film was going to be something that was for Black gay men, and it was going to be very poetic and lyrical. And then he got sick. He had an allergic reaction to medication and then learned he was HIV positive. He suffered kidney failure and almost died at that time, he was really ill, and so fortunately he had good medical coverage as it happened when he was visiting Germany. At that point, Marlon’s entire being shifted. And this little 10 or 12 minute film became infused with a rawness, a vitality, an urgency, and a force that it might not otherwise have had.”
Tongues Untied went on to be acclaimed at international film festivals, winning the Teddy at the 1990 Berlinale, and the Audience Award for Best Video at the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. But Riggs had no idea that what he’d made would eventually be shown on public television in the US, as part of PBS’ POV series. Kleiman recalls how the broadcast came about, “At that time Cara Mertes was programming late night independent film for the New York area on the PBS station, it was WNYC I think, and she approached Marlon after that first AFI screening. Basically she asked Marlon if he would agree to let her broadcast it, and he thought she was completely crazy. This was not something that had been designed for public television. He’d never had that in mind. He told her that if it was to be shown then he wouldn’t change a thing; no bleeping of audio, no crossing out of anything on screen. And she 100% agreed. So the New York region broadcast happened first, and it went fairly well.”
“Mark Weiss, who created POV and was still the executive producer of the series at that time, really took the heat,” Kleiman continues. “He was very dedicated to the notion of giving space on public television to voices that aren’t normally given the opportunity to be heard, and Mark approached Marlon about the national broadcast. Again Marlon insisted on no changes being made.” Weiss’ decision to broadcast the film was fraught with controversy, even before it aired, as Kleiman recalls, “Once POV announced its schedule, and that they were leading the series with Tongues Untied about Black gay men, all hell broke loose. It was the rise of the culture wars in the late 80s and just the announcement that it would be shown inflamed the folks like Pat Buchanan and Jessie Helms. Without seeing the film they described it as pornographic, and they cited the work as a reason to defund the arts. At the same time, the broadcast was applauded by many who appreciated the work, and valued its inclusion in the PBS schedule, Norman Lear among them. But just the idea of having stories about Black gay men on public television inflamed the neocons.”
“I like to say that if Marlon had designed Tongues Untied for the audience of national public television, as he did with Ethic Notions, the film would have been diluted. If he’d been making Tongues Untied for a broad audience it would have started with statistics and numbers and it be would be the sort of thing you’d watch if you were in class and had to write a paper on it. It would not have had the vitality that this work has. I like to point out that at every juncture when Marlon was editing Tongues Untied he had one main question in mind: ‘Is this a moment in the film that’s describing Black gay men or is this a moment that’s continuing the conversation among Black gay men?’ If it was the former he’d delete it, if it was the latter it stayed in. I think it’s that commitment to an authentic, very targeted, very specific audience that ironically infuses the piece with its broad appeal, because one feels like one’s being invited into a room that one normally doesn’t get to be invited into.”
As for the reaction to the film thirty years on, starting with sold out screenings at BAM, Vivian Kleiman says, “It was really shocking and gratifying, and it speaks to the power of storytelling in its most authentic expression. Having the opportunity to show Marlon’s work to a very broad audience in 2019 was really extraordinary, and the reception that it received, both from a new generation that was unfamiliar with him and from people who’d perhaps had the opportunity to see it at the time, was equal across the board. It has a particular resonance for Black gay men. I remember Marlon told me a story about this Black gay man who came up to him in Berlin and said that he felt like Marlon had entered his home, rifled through his desk, his papers, and captured his deep, dark secrets. That’s how intimate an experience it was for that person.”
“I’d be there for Q&As after the screenings,” Vivian continues, “and with the younger generation there wasn’t one person who said that they felt Tongues Untied was dated, or that technology has gotten so much better now that it was hard to watch. There were people who felt bittersweet about the fact that it is still so relevant to today, that people could still identify with the problems of rejection and shame at a time when we feel like so much has been accomplished like gay marriage and the freedom to come out in the workplace. But strong storytelling is strong storytelling, and it seems that those who are not necessarily the intended audience for Tongues Untied feel that although they may not get every reference, they may not have been exposed to snapping or the trauma of being kicked out of a bar or whatever, they do get the feeling of rejection, and they get the feeling of shame. I think that’s what good art does, it generates on that very profound level, and reaches people on a much deeper level than the subject or the topic. You know, we may not all be salesmen, but we certainly understand Death of a Salesman.”
As for the resonance of Riggs’ films in today’s world, Ashley Clark considers that, “As long as there is anti-Black racism, as long as there is HIV/AIDS, as long as there is inequality, as long as there is racism in the media, these works are going to be timely, they’re going to be relevant. Every time Spike Lee releases a new film, people say, ‘Oh, it’s timely’, well of course it is because Black people are still being killed in America. So I think there’s a baseline that Marlon’s work is always going to be exceptionally relevant as long as America fails to reckon with its present and past. But I think the needle has been turned up on certain aspects of the work. In terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, I read a really interesting Twitter thread recently about how it is a wake up call to see how people with HIV were treated in the Reagan era, with the government not acknowledging the problem, taking no responsibility, not mourning. These kinds of double standards are absolutely coming to the fore today. And Marlon Riggs’ work, Non, je ne regret rien (No regret) in particular, tackles head on the stigma of HIV/AIDS. It gives name to it, gives voice to it, and tries to end that silence. Silence = Death is was what his films were all about.”
Riggs originally shot all of his work, now digitally restored, on video. Kleiman tells us, “I like that that first screening at AFI of Tongues Untied was in the context of video art. Back then video was a really separate world that was mostly white, and I bet it was mostly straight too. Marlon wasn’t trained in film whatsoever. He came to documentary video work through the notion of journalism, of wanting to observe and report and use video to bring news and stories to television viewers in particular. He was proud of being a video documentary maker and he was very much involved in the technology of video. He would be thrilled right now that you can shoot a film on your iPhone and The New York Times will see it in the theatre and write about it. He would just be completely tickled by the notion of DIY, about the accessibility, and also the ability to layer images. The layering of images that he did in his work back then like in Tongues Untied and Color Adjustment, cost a lot of money. It would have been about $200 an hour, and to layer one image would take about four hours. Now you just push a button, and it’s done. Marlon was very much committed to teaching, in fact teaching was his priority over his own filmmaking. And if he were here now he would definitely be encouraging training, in that storytelling is an art form and it does require training for most of us. He would definitely be encouraging folks to place themselves in that role of getting feedback from a trained eye.”
When it comes to Riggs’ filmmaking style, two distinct approaches are evident; what is on the surface a more traditional documentary format used for the groundbreaking subject matter in the compelling features made specifically for television broadcast, Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment, and the more poetic, experimental framework of films like Tongues Untied, Affirmations, Anthem, Non, je ne regret rien (No regret), and what was tragically to be his swan song, Black is…Black Ain’t, completed by his collaborators. “With Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment,” Ashley Clark comments, “they are on the one hand more sober, more stately and more straightforward. And yet, in the case of Ethnic Notions for instance it still makes space for performance within it of the Leni Sloan blackface routine and the Bert Williams reference. There are so many mixed media materials happening in there. So Riggs was always thinking about livening things up visually, even in something as nominally straightforward as Ethnic Notions. But then in Tongues Untied his creative spirit is embodied within the film, and there’s poetry and dance, and polyvocal voiceover and there’s music, and there’s all kinds of rhythm in there. All kinds of different intellectual tangents spring up in Tongues Untied, yet somehow seem to connect. The spine of it, the unique spirit to the work, really does seem to be his personality and that brings all these disparate, stylistic and thematic threads together. I think that is obviously a corollary of him bringing himself front and centre. I would also like to point out that just by being Black and gay he is a politicised body in America and American cinema, and something that happens to a lot of Black American filmmakers and to diaspora filmmakers around the world, is that the conversation turns to the politics and the representation first and foremost, and we tend to sideline the artistry, so I think it’s important to address how incredibly these films are made.”
“Marlon was somebody who fused two worlds,” Vivian Kleimann offers. “He had the trained eye of the observing journalist and storyteller, but he also pursued the creation of more intimate, personal works, which is the complete antithesis of the journalistic posture. He created landmark work because he challenged the conventional forms of documentary film, and he also infused personal filmmaking with a new vitality and breadth that it didn’t usually have. His work was all produced in service of exploring issues such as sexuality, HIV, stereotypes, and ridicule. He was committed to the representation of race and sexuality in this country.” As a caretaker of Marlon’s work and legacy, Vivian recalls Marlon’s attitude to what should happen to his films after his death, “He always refused to discuss it. He would shrug his shoulders and say, ‘that’s your concern. I don’t need to think about that.’ He had many ideas about his next projects, and I’m sorry he didn’t live to see through the completion of Black Is…Black Ain’t.”
It’s clear from watching Riggs’ work that James Baldwin had a profound impact on him as an artist, both explicitly seen in the quotes that appear on screen, and in the way that his films continue Baldwin’s legacy of addressing racial injustice with potent urgency, lyricism and fierce intelligence. Baldwin died in 1987, just one year after the premiere of Ethic Notions. “Marlon’s two role models, his two most prominent sources of inspiration,” Kleinmann offers, “were Harriet Tubman and James Baldwin. Tubman gave him the fortitude to face the challenges that he faced as a Black gay man rejected in the Black community for being gay and rejected in the gay community as a Black man. While Baldwin really helped give Marlon his voice through his profound comments on the world, that sense of being philosophical about very concrete images and his use of language. I think one of the things in particular that attracted Marlon to James Baldwin is how brilliant he was while also being completely accessible. You don’t have to rely on fancy language or referencing Wittgenstein or whoever, Baldwin just told it like it is. I think Baldwin’s clear, speaking from the heart and mind quality certainly helped Marlon find his own voice.”
Riggs was the recipient of multiple prestigious awards during his lifetime, including a Peabody Award for Color Adjustment, and last year the 30th of Tongues Untied prompted the 78th Annual Peabody Awards to recognise the filmmaker and that seminal film. Pose star Billy Porter was invited to present the tribute. Vivian Kleiman recalls approaching Porter beforehand to thank him, “I asked him if he’d ever seen Tongues Untied. Billy looked me in the eye and said that he had seen it when it was first broadcast on POV on national PBS and that it gave him his voice, it gave him permission to become who he became. We hugged. We cried. It was one of those moments that is indescribable.”
As well as Riggs’ own films, the Criterion Channel are also showcasing several works Inspired by Marlon Riggs. Ashley Clark who selected these short films tells us, “The program at BAM included films and individuals that influenced Marlon as well as work that he had influence. In terms of the influences upon him we included two short films about James Baldwin. Addressing his influence upon other filmmakers, where the lineage is apparent, we included a couple of features like Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight and Brother to Brother by Rodney Evans. Then there was a shorts program, and we are including five of those shorts on the Criterion Channel. There’s 100 Boyfriends Mixtape, the Brontez Purnell film which is very funny; The Labyrinth 1.0 by Tiona Nekkia McClodden based on the work of Brad Johnson, a late Black gay writer; Walk for Me by Elegance Bratton; the dance piece, A Guide to Breathing Underwater by Raven Jackson, which is very much in dialogue with Marlon’s sense of movement and freedom and physicality that you see in his films; and finally A Drop of Sun Under the Earth by the artist Shikeith, which is a beautiful film. It was really important to me that this Criterion version of Race, Sex & Cinema included some sense of Marlon’s continuing contemporary resonance and relevance. It’s not necessarily that all of these filmmakers had Marlon in the forefront of their minds the whole time when they were making these films, but there’s no question that his spirit infuses the work. I think it’s a nice way to tie it all together.”
In conclusion, Clark offers about Riggs’ oeuvre, “It’s just incredible. His work is engaging, it’s so much fun, and it’s so interesting. He’s a filmmaker without obvious parallel, and I’m so excited for new audiences to discover his work and see how it resounds in the current world, and how it speaks to people and helps them to be themselves and gives them emotional support in a way. It is really beautiful work and I’m proud to be working with Criterion to make this happen.”
By James Kleinmann
Race, Sex & Cinema: The World of Marlon Riggs launches on the Criterion Channel on Sunday October 18th. Sign up for a free 14-day trial. The Marlon Riggs collection includes the following features:
Ethnic Notions (1986), Tongues Untied (1989), Color Adjustment (1992), Black Is . . . Black Ain’t (1994), I Shall Not Be Removed: The Life of Marlon Riggs (Karen Everett, 1996).
Marlon Riggs’ short films: Long Train Running: A History of the Oakland Blues (Marlon Riggs & Peter Webster, 1981), Affirmations (1990), Anthem (1991), Non, je ne regrette rien (No Regret) (1993).
Walk for Me (Elegance Bratton, 2016), 100 Boyfriends Mixtape (Brontez Purnell, 2016), A Drop of Sun Under the Earth (Shikeith, 2017), The Labyrinth 1.0 (Tiona Nekkia McClodden, 2017), A Guide to Breathing Underwater (Raven Jackson, 2018).