Black Is…Black Ain’t (1995): Marlon Riggs Intriguing Docu about Black Conciousness

Sundance Film Festival–Marlon Riggs’s Black Is…Black Ain’t probes the complex, ever-changing nature of black consciousness and black identity and their varying meanings.

Black is... Black Ain't

Riggs is best know for his publicly-funded Tongues Untied, which ultra-conservative Patrick Buchanan blasted in his attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts. Black Is…Black Ain’t is a natural follow-up to Riggs’ pioneering films, Ethnic Notions, which chronicles stereotypes of black Americans, and Color Adjustment, winner of the 1991 Peabody Award.

Combining folk stories, interviews with celebrities, archival material and black music, this documentary scrutinizes the often-contradictory perceptions of “blackness” through the history of African-Americans. The film provokes and disquiets, rather than resolves, the intricate issues it raises. As a militant gay filmmaker, Riggs confronts the association of blackness with masculinity, a cultural equation that emerged during the Black Power movement. Riggs takes aim at sexism, patriarchy, and homophobia–ills that still besiege the black community–and American society at large. Unabashedly polemic in its exploration of black culture, the film’s canvas is as expansive as it is diffuse.

In a performance piece, artist Eric Gupton looks into the camera and asks: “Haven’t we had enough of folks telling other folks what’s proper, how to talk, who to love, how to dress, wear your hair, eat, drink, pray, think, make love” Despite diversity of opinions, what emerges as a common thread is the refusal of African-Americans to have an identity imposed on them by outsiders. “We have obsession with naming ourselves, because for most of our lives we’ve been named by other people,” opines Angela Davis, who quips at one point, “wearing African clothes doesn’t change my identity,” stressing instead the importance of language in the formation of black identity.

Harvard professor Cornell West echoes the film’s central theme: “There is no one grand black community. We have multiple identities and we’re moving in and out of various communities at the same time.” Like West, Riggs favors a black consciousness that is based on communion rather than unity, one that embraces rather than ignores differences. Black Is is a powerful plea to reunite–despite divisiveness along gender, sexual, and cultural lines.

What makes Black Is more interesting is the context in which it was produced, and then completed. In November 1993, Riggs was hospitalized for AIDS-related complications, and work on the film was suspended. However, his colleagues Nicole Atkinson and Christine Badgley were committed to his vision. With footage and notes Riggs left behind, and recordings of Riggs from his hospital bed, they completed the film, which becomes even more painfully personal due to Riggs’ onscreen appearance.

Riggs, a participant in the film, is shown in a race against time to finish the film, struggling with his precarious health and mortality. There are interviews with him while he is in the hospital, and the opening scene is a shot of himself in the woods.

Riggs died of AIDS in April 1994 at the age of 37 before the film was completed. Adhering to Riggs’ notes, his colleagues completed the film with Signifyin’ Works, the production company Marlon created in 1991 to produce his work.

Critical Status

Black Is…Black Ain’t won the Filmmakers’ Trophy at the 1995 Sundance Film Fest and the Distinguished Achievement Award from the International Documentary Association.