Marlon Riggs - Director

Nationality: American. Born: Marlon Troy Riggs, Fort Worth, Texas, 1957. Education: Harvard University, B.A. (with honors), 1978; University of California, Berkeley, M.A. in journalism, 1981. Career: Worked for television station in Texas, 1978–79; moved to Berkeley, California, 1979; produced master's thesis Long Train Running , University of California at Berkeley, 1981; worked for various producers and directors in documentary film, with particular focus on public television production, 1981–87; began producing, writing, and directing original films, 1987; part-time faculty member, School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. Awards: Berlin International Film Festival Teddy Award for Best Documentary Film Award, Los Angeles Film Critics Association Independent/Experimental Film or Video Award, and National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Individual Craft Award for Outstanding Achievement in Research, for Tongues Untied , 1990; American Film Institute Independent Film and Video Artists Award, 1992; George Foster Peabody Award, Outstanding Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association, and Erik Barnouw Award from the Organization of American Historians, for Color Adjustment 1992; Sundance Film Festival Filmmaker's Trophy in Documentary, for Black Is. . . Black Ain't , 1995. Died: Oakland, California, 5 April 1994, of complications from AIDS.

Films as Director:


Ethnic Notions (doc) (+ pr, wr)




Tongues Untied (doc) (+pr, wr, ed); Anthem


No Regret ; Color Adjustment (doc) (+pr, wr)


Boy's Shorts: The New Queer Cinema


Black Is. . . Black Ain't (doc)


By RIGGS: articles—

"Boyz N Hollywood," in High Performance , vol. 14, no. 4, Winter 1991.

Kleinhans, Chuck, and Julia Lesage, "Listening to the Heartbeat: Interview with Marlon Riggs," in Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media , no. 36, 1991.

"Tongues Untied" (poem) and "Black Macho Revisted: Reflections of a SNAP! Queen," in Brother to Brother: New Writings by Black Gay Men , edited by Essex Hemphill, Boston, 1991.

"Unleash the Queen," in Black Popular Culture , edited by Gina Dent, Seattle, 1992.

Gerandmann, Roy, "New Agendas in Black Filmmaking: An Interview with Marlon Riggs," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 19, nos. 2–3, 1992.

"Tongues Re-tied," in Resolutions : Contemporary Video Practices , edited by Michael Renov and Erika Suderburg, Minneapolis, 1996.

On RIGGS: books—

Avena, Thomas, Life Sentences: Writers, Artists, and AIDS , San Francisco, 1994.

Holmlund, Chris, and Cynthia Fuchs, editors, Between the Sheets, In the Streets: Queer, Lesbian, Gay Documentary , Minneapolis, 1997.

Klotman, Phyllis R., and Janet K. Cutler, Struggles for Representation: African-American Documentary Film and Video , Indianapolis, 1999.

On RIGGS: articles—

Anwar, Farrah, " Tongues Untied ," in Sight and Sound (London), vol. 1, no. 3, July 1991.

Walters, Barry, "Filmmaker's Social Views Untied," in San Francisco Examiner , 14 June 1993.

Mercer, Kobina, "Dark and Lovely Too: Black Gay Men in Independent Film," in Queer Looks: Perspectives on Lesbian and Gay Film and Video , edited by Martha Gerver, et al., New York, 1993.

Scott, Darieck, "Jungle Fever? Black Gay Identity Politics, White Dick, and the Utopian Bedroom," in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies , vol. 1, no. 3, 1994.

Julien, Isaac, "Long Live the Queen," in Village Voice (New York), 26 April 1994.

Harper, Phillip Brian, "Marlon Riggs: The Subjective Position of Documentary Video," in Art Journal , vol. 54, no. 4, Winter 1995.

McEldowney, Elliott, "Marlon Troy Riggs," in Gay and Lesbian Literature , vol. 2, edited by Tom Pendergast and Sara Pendergast, Detroit, 1998.

Petty, Sheila, "Silence and Its Opposite: Expression of Race in Tongues Untied ," in Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video , edited by Barry Keith Grant and Jeannette Sloniowski, Detroit, 1998.

On RIGGS: film—

I Shall Not be Removed: The Life of Marlon Riggs , directed by Karen Everett, California Newsreel, 1996.

* * *

Though the career of Marlon Riggs was brief, he established himself as one of the most important contemporary documentary filmmakers by producing, writing, and directing some of the most aesthetically innovative and socially provocative documentaries of the 1980s and 1990s.

Riggs, the child of a military family, spent a good deal of his childhood traveling. He lived in Fort Worth, Texas, the town of his birth, until age 11, when his family moved to West Germany. He returned to the United States in 1974 to attend Harvard University. For his senior thesis, Riggs chose a topic important to his own identity—the depiction of male homosexuality in American fiction and poetry—a subject not well received by the faculty. He ended up completing his research under the guidance of a graduate teaching assistant; none of the faculty were interested in serving as his advisor on the project.

After graduating with honors, Riggs returned to Texas to work at a television station. The racism he encountered while on the job fueled his decision to leave. He pursued a master's degree in journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1981, having produced a thesis titled Long Train Running. After graduation Riggs honed his skills as a filmmaker by assisting documentary directors and producers, working as a production assistant and later editor, post-production supervisor, and sound editor. Much of his work was for those working in public television. In 1989 he completed his own film, Ethnic Notions , an documentary concerning the pervasive and intransigent stereotypes of African Americans. In the film, Riggs used an innovative approach, tracing the history of the stereotypes from slavery to the present, skillfully presenting the ways by which centuries-old attitudes about African Americans inform contemporary racism. Ethnic Notions established Riggs as one of the most important contemporary directors of American documentary.

His next film, Tongues Untied , an aesthetically challenging hybrid of experimental and documentary forms, used scenes of fantasy, performance, personal testimonies, direct address, and autobiography to confront, as Farrah Anwar writes in Sight and Sound ,"the complacency of whites and blacks, hetero and homosexuals, in a bravura display of controlled anger" about the oppression faced by gay African American men. Though the film was well received by critics and the public, it was deemed controversial because of its frank depiction of racism and homophobia. The film was used, along with other federally funded art works, by conservative members of the United States Senate to attack the National Endowment for the Arts. During the making of the film, Riggs discovered that he tested positive for HIV, the virus that can cause AIDS. Despite the threat to his health, and complications that ensued, he continued to work, completing two more films: No Regrets (1992), a documentary on the experiences of gay African-American men and HIV, and Color Adjustment (1992), which traces the evolution of African-American images on American television. More than just a history of African Americans on American television, this latter documentary, like all of Riggs's works, tackles the subject of social relations and social justice. Color Adjustment , narrated by actress and civil rights activist Ruby Dee, places the television images in the context of wider social and political relations, examining the inter-relation between America's racial consciousness and network prime-time programming. Rigg's final film, Black Is. . . Black Ain't (1995), which was completed after his death, analyzes the ways in which African-American identity has been formed through an exclusion of the female, the gay, and the lesbian.

—Frances Gateward

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