Riggs, Marlon T.

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Marlon Troy Riggs (3 February 1957 - 5 April 1994) was a gay African-American filmmaker, educator, poet, and gay rights activist. He also produced, wrote, and directed several television documentaries.

From the description of Marlon Riggs archive, including papers, videos, and personal items, 1957-1994. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 754865939


Long Train Running: The Story of the Oakland Blues, 1981. (Co-producer, director and editor) Summary: Documentary about the history of blues music in Oakland following the migration of black people to the East Bay area following WWII. Produced as a graduate thesis for UC Berkeley. Awards: American Film Institute National Video Festival Documentary Division First Prize, Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Student Television awards Documentary Second Prize

How much is enough? Decision Making in the Nuclear Age, 1982. PBS "Crisis to Crisis Series" (Associate Editor)

A Traveling Jewish Theatre, 1983 (Editor)

Fighting Ministers, 1983. (Assistant Editor) Summary: A program about a group of Ministers who protest the closing of the Pittsburgh steel mills. Broadcast nationally on PBS, 1983.

The First Fifty Years: Reflections on U.S./Soviet Relations, 1984. (associate Editor) Summary: A television special documenting the history of U.S. -Soviet relations through Soviet and American footage and interviews with key Americans such as Richard Nixon. Broadcast nationally on PBS in 1984. Winner of the duPont-Columbia Silver Baton, 1985.

Faces of War (Faces of the Enemy), 1986. (Associate Editor) Summary: A one-hour special for PBS examining how thoughts and images of the enemy lead to violence and war. Broadcast nationally on PBS, May 1987. National Emmy Nomination, 1987

Changing Images: Mirrors of Life, Molds of Reality, 1987. (Producer, director, editor and writer)

Ethnic Notions, 1987. (Producer, director, and writer) Summary: Riggs' first solo professional feature documentary, this film traces the evolution of black caricature and stereotypes of black people in American popular culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With a narrative voice-over provided by Esther Rolle, the film interweaves film footage, cartoons, music, dance, theatre and stills of historical images to expose the racism of the era immediately following the Civil War. The documentary presents a set of contemporary interviews with historians George Fredrickson, Pat Turner and Larry Levine, cultural critic Barbara Christian, and others, who discuss the consequences of historical African-American stereotypes. Awards: Winner of the Individual Craft Award of Outstanding Achievement in Research in the national news and documentary category, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, First Prize in the Black American Cinema Society Independent Filmmaker awards, Best Documentary in the San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Awards, First prize in the U.S. History Category of the National Educational Film and Video Festival. Newark Black Film Festival Award, Red Ribbon Award from the American Film and Video Festival, and the Chicago International Film Festival Award, 1987. National Educational Film and Video Festival Gold Apple Award, 1987.

Open Window: Innovations from the University of California, 1988. (director and writer)

Visions toward Tomorrow: Black Californians From the Gold Rush to the Present, 1989. (Director, producer, writer, and editor)

Tongues Untied, 1989. (Producer, director, and writer) Summary: In this autobiographical film Riggs uses a narrative structure to tell of his own experiences, blending documentary footage with personal accounts and fiction in an attempt to depict black gay identity. The "silence" referred to throughout the film is that of the black gay man, who not only faces prejudices from white and black heterosexual society, but also from the white gay movement. Awards: Winner of the Blue ribbon in the American Film and Video Festival, Best Video in the New York Documentary Festival, Best Experimental Video in the San Francisco International Film and Video Festival, Berlin International Film Festival Teddy Award for Best Documentary Film Award, Los Angeles Film Critics Association Independent/Experimental Film or Video Award, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Individual Craft Award for Outstanding Achievement in Research, Outstanding merit award and best experimental video, both from Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, Wellington Film festival award to Tongues Untied, Certificate of Merit from the Big Muddy Film Festival, D.C. International Film Festival, Cleveland International Film Festival award and Special Jury Award of the USA Film Festival, Dallas. National Educational Film and Video Festival Gold Apple Award, 1990.

Affirmations, 1990. (Producer and director) Summary: This film is made from the outtakes of "Tongues Untied", and includes a coming-out story of black gay writer Reginald T. Jackson, and further develops Riggs' critique of homophobia originally expressed in Tongues Untied.

Color Adjustment, 1991. (producer, director, and writer) Summary: Riggs's follow-up to Ethnic Notions, focusing on images of black people in American television from the mid-1940s through the 1980s and scrutinizing television's racial myths and stereotypes. Narrated by African-American actress Ruby Dee and using contemporary interviews of television actors, directors, producers, and cultural commentators, the documentary conveys personal reflections and academic analyses of such television programs as Amos 'n' Andy, Beulah, The Nat King Cole Show, Julia, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, Good Times, Roots, The Cosby Show and others. Riggs portrays a history of the race conflict as reflected in television, tracing 40 years of race relations through the lens of prime time entertainment. Awards: Winner of the 1992 Erik Barnouw Award from the Organization of American Historians, The International Documentary Association's Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award, American Film Institute Independent Film and Video Artists Award, 1992, George Foster Peabody Award, nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Worldfest Houston Gold Special Jury Award,1992. Chicago International Film Festival Award, 1991. National Educational Film and Video Festival Best of Festival, 1992. Sydney Film festival certificate of screening, Jerusalem Film festival award and Cleveland Film Festival certificate of participation, 1992.

No Regrets, 1992. (producer and director) Summary: In the film [Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regret)], five gay Black men, who are HIV-positive, discuss how they are battling the double stigmas surrounding their infection and homosexuality. It was commissioned as part of a series of documentaries on the AIDS crisis. Awards: Winner of the Juror's Choice at the Black Maria Film and Video Festival, Best "Black Experience" Film/Video at the 8th Annual Black International Cinema Festival, Honorable Mention and Best Cultural Affairs Documentary by the National Black Programming Consortium's Prized Pieces Festival.

Anthem, 1993. (producer and director) Summary: This film is a short documentary about African-American male sexuality, shown as a collage of images of black men, using hip-hop music, fast editing techniques and graphics in the style of a music video. Awards: The Brooklyn Arts Council Award Certificate

Black Is...Black Ain't, 1994. (producer, director, and writer) Summary: This film, using the analogy of Gumbo as a metaphor for the rich diversity of Black identities, tells the story of the African American experience, through the many images of black people of themselves. Riggs mixes performances by choreographer Bill T. Jones and poet Essex Hemphill, with commentary by noted cultural critics Angela Davis, Bell Hooks, Cornel West, Michele Wallace, and Barbara Smith to explore the lives, histories, and stereotypes surrounding African American culture and people. Riggs' own urgent quest for self-definition and community ties the multiple perspectives together. Speaking from his hospital bed, Riggs takes strength for his struggle against AIDS from the continual resilience of African Americans in the face of oppression. Awards: Winner of the Filmmaker's Trophy in Documentary, nominated for the Grand Jury prize at Sundance Film Festival, 1995. Winner of the Golden Gate Award for the Bay Area Documentary Film & Video at the San Francisco International Film festival, 1995. Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, Best Film Overall award and First Place Documentary section award, 1995


Marlon Troy Riggs was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1957. Riggs lived in Fort Worth, Texas, until the age of 11, when his family moved to Georgia and then to West Germany. He returned to the United States in 1974 to attend Harvard University, where he studied history and graduated, with honors, in 1978. Riggs returned to Texas to work in television but left in 1980 to pursue a master's degree in journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1981. His graduate thesis entitled Long Train Running, produced and co-directed with fellow student Peter Webster, was a half-hour video on the history of the blues in Oakland, California.

Upon finishing graduate school, Riggs honed his skills as a filmmaker by assisting documentary directors and producers, working as associate editor on works made for public television. By the time he began producing his own works in 1985, he had many films to his credit, including short documentaries on the American arms race, Nicaragua, Central America, sexism, and disability rights. Having already established a name amongst producers and technicians in documentary film in the San Francisco Bay area, Riggs continued to build on that reputation as he produced, directed, and wrote his own films. In 1987, Riggs was hired as a part-time faculty member at the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley to teach documentary filmmaking. He became a tenured professor at Berkeley shortly thereafter and spent the rest of his working life in the Oakland area.

In 1989 he completed his own film, Ethnic Notions, a documentary concerning the pervasive stereotypes of African Americans in advertising, literature and popular culture. In the film, Riggs traces the history of stereotypes from slavery to the present, presenting the ways by which centuries-old attitudes about African Americans informed contemporary racism. Although Ethnic Notions is a challenging look at the images that have been used in American culture to reinforce racism, it was received with respect by all audiences alike and won a series of prestigious awards, including the Individual Craft Award of Outstanding Achievement in Research in the national news and documentary category from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

However, it was his second major documentary, Tongues Untied, which established Riggs as a controversial figure, pushing him into the limelight in the debate over public funding of the arts. Tongues Untied, using a hybrid of experimental and documentary forms, showed scenes of fantasy, performance, personal testimonies, direct address, and autobiography to confront stereotypes and to convey an authentic and positive black gay identity. In order to demonstrate the harmful effects of silence on self-esteem, the film contrasts this image with negative representations of gay black men as caricatures and drag queens in contemporary American popular culture. The three principle voices of Tongues Untied are those of Riggs, as well as gay rights activists and HIV positive men, Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam.

Though the film was well received by critics and the public, it was deemed controversial because of its frank depiction of racism and homophobia. This highly personal documentary was the first frank discussion of the black, gay experience on television and kept the film from being aired on most public television stations. 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, which sparked a national debate about funding from the Federal government of the United States for artistic creations some consider obscene. Artists stressed their basic right of free speech and vehemently opposed censorship of their art. In the 1992 Republican presidential primaries, presidential candidate Buchanan released an anti-Bush television advertisement for his campaign using re-edited clips from Tongues United. The ad aired for several days throughout the United States but was quickly removed from television channels after Riggs accused Buchanan of copyright infringement.

In 1989, while making Tongues Untied, Riggs tested positive for HIV but continued making films, despite the onset of complications from the infection. In 1991, Riggs produced the long-awaited sequel to Ethnic Notions, Color Adjustment, a documentary film that traces the evolution of the black image in television. Featuring clips from Amos 'n' Andy, Beulah, The Nat King Cole Show, Julia, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, Good Times, Roots, The Cosby Show and others, as well as newsreel footage from the 1960s Civil Rights years, Riggs portrays a history of the race conflict as reflected in television. Using contemporary interviews of television actors, directors, producers, and cultural commentators, the documentary conveys personal reflections and academic analyses of the use of race in television programs from the 1950s through to the 1980s. Color Adjustment was met with high critical praise, receiving a Peabody Award and being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. In 1992 it was also aired as part of the P.O.V. series on PBS.

In addition to his work as a documentary film-maker, Riggs also published both fiction and scholarly articles related to his academic work. The themes of his writings include filmmaking, free speech and censorship, and criticism of racism and homophobia and were published during the late 1980s and early 1990s in various art and literary journals.

"Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around." As a media activist, Riggs testified before Congress and wrote widely on issues of censorship and issues related to the control of intellectual property. He was also on the national policy committee of the PBS and served on panels of organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1988 he spoke before a U.S. Senate Committee as part of the successful campaign to create the Independent Television Service (ITVS) supporting controversial, independent voices on public television.

As well as his longer documentaries, Marlon created several short experimental videos including Affirmations, which included a coming-out story of black gay writer Reginald T. Jackson. In 1991, Riggs directed and produced Anthem, a short documentary about African-American male sexuality. Viewed as a take on music videos, the film includes a collage of erotic images of black men, hip-hop music, and a call to celebrate difference in sexuality.

In 1992, Riggs directed the film Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regret), in which five gay Black men who are HIV-positive discuss how they are battling the double stigmas surrounding their infection and homosexuality. It was commissioned as part of a series of documentaries on the AIDS crisis called "Fear of Disclosure". In 1993, Riggs received an honorary doctorate degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts.

Marlon Riggs' final film, Black Is...Black Ain't, is an example of the kind of television programming he struggled to support all his life. Hospitalized by kidney failure and other ailments, he continued to direct, even appearing on camera from his hospital bed, and the film took on a more personal tone as his illness progressed. While filming Riggs grew sicker but continued to write until kidney failure and other problems confined him to a hospital bed. Riggs succumbed to the complications of AIDS on April 5, 1994, before he could finish the film. His co-producer Nicole Atkinson and co-director Christiane Badgely used his notes as a guide to complete the film seven months after his death.

In "Black Is...Black Ain't" Riggs commented from his hospital bed that "As long as I have work then I'm not going to die, cause work is a living spirit in me--that which wants to connect with other people and pass on something to them which they can use in their own lives and grow from." Ultimately, Riggs's work lives on, showing that his voice is stronger than his virus.

From the guide to the Marlon Riggs Collection, 1957-1994, (Dept. of Special Collections & University Archives)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
referencedIn Benemann, William,. William Benemann collection of sexuality and gender miscellany, 1953-2011. UC Berkeley Libraries
creatorOf Riggs, Marlon T. Marlon Riggs archive, including papers, videos, and personal items, 1957-1994. Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Black, Kerrigan. Kerrigan Black papers, 1963-1993. Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Wallace, Michele. Michele Wallace papers, ca. 1940-2004. New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn Black, Kerrigan. Papers., 1963-1993 Stanford University. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
creatorOf Simmons, Ron. Ron Simmons papers, 1972-2006. New York Public Library System, NYPL
referencedIn The Mix Collection, 1987-2001 Fales Library & Special Collections
referencedIn Lothar and Eva Just Film Stills Collection. Harvard Film Archive, Harvard College Library, Harvard University
creatorOf Marlon Riggs Collection, 1957-1994 Cecil H. Green Library. Department of Special Collections and University Archives
referencedIn Creative Time, Inc. Creative Time archive, 1973-2006. Churchill County Museum
creatorOf Riggs, Marlon T. Anthem [videorecording] / by Marlon Riggs. Getty Research Institute
referencedIn Creative Time Archive, 1973-2006 Fales Library & Special Collections
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Asante, Molefi K., 1942- person
associatedWith Atkinson, Nicole person
associatedWith Badgley, Christiane person
associatedWith Beam, Joseph person
associatedWith Benemann, William, person
associatedWith Blackberri person
associatedWith Black Gay Men United. corporateBody
associatedWith Black, Kerrigan. person
associatedWith Black Panther Party corporateBody
associatedWith Bochco, Steven person
associatedWith Buchanan, Patrick J. (Patrick Joseph), 1938- person
associatedWith California Newsreel (Firm) corporateBody
associatedWith Carroll, Diahann person
associatedWith Christian, Barbara, 1943-2000 person
associatedWith Corbitt, Wayne T. person
associatedWith Corporation for Public Broadcasting corporateBody
associatedWith Cosby, Bill, 1937- person
associatedWith Creative Time, Inc. corporateBody
associatedWith Davis, Angela Y., (Angela Yvonne), 1944- person
associatedWith Davis, Anthony, 1951- person
associatedWith Dee, Ruby person
associatedWith Dellal, Jasmine person
associatedWith Duckette, Larry person
associatedWith Faulkner, Janette person
associatedWith Frameline (Firm). corporateBody
associatedWith Franti, Michael, 1968- person
associatedWith Fredrickson, George M., 1934-2008 person
associatedWith Gates, Henry Louis person
associatedWith Grey, Herman person
associatedWith Hall, Stuart, 1932- person
associatedWith Harris, Lyle Ashton, 1965- person
associatedWith Hemphill, Essex person
associatedWith Henry, Bob person
associatedWith Hoffmann, Deborah person
associatedWith Hooks, Bell person
associatedWith Hurston, Zora Neale person
associatedWith Jones, Bill T. person
associatedWith Jones, Wayson person
associatedWith Julien, Isaac person
associatedWith Kanter, Hal person
associatedWith Kleiman, Vivian person
associatedWith KQED corporateBody
associatedWith KRON-TV (Television station : San Francisco, Calif.) corporateBody
associatedWith Langley, Steve person
associatedWith Lear, Norman person
associatedWith Leonard, Sheldon, 1907-1997 person
associatedWith Levine, Larry. person
associatedWith MacDonald, J. Fred person
associatedWith Murphy, Eddie, 1961- person
associatedWith Nicholas, Denise, 1944- person
associatedWith Paltrow, Bruce person
associatedWith Peters, Erskine person
associatedWith Poussaint, Alvin F. person
associatedWith Reid, Timothy L. person
associatedWith Ringgold, Faith person
associatedWith Robinson, Colin person
associatedWith Rolle, Esther person
associatedWith Saint, Assoto, 1957-1993 person
associatedWith Signifyin' Works. corporateBody
associatedWith Simmons, Ron. person
associatedWith Sloan, Lenwood person
associatedWith Smith, Barbara, 1946- person
associatedWith Turner, Patricia A. person
associatedWith Tyson, Mike, 1966- person
associatedWith University of California at Berkeley corporateBody
associatedWith Wallace, Michele person
associatedWith Wallace, Michele person
associatedWith Watkins, Mary person
associatedWith West, Cornel person
associatedWith Wolper, David L. person
associatedWith Woods, Donald person
associatedWith X, Malcolm, 1925-1965 person
Place Name Admin Code Country
United States
Gays--California--Public opinion
African Americans in popular culture--Songs and music
Gay rights--History--20th century--Sources
Art, Modern--20th century
Historical research
African Americans--History--Study and teaching (Higher)
African Americans--Study and teaching
Homosexuality--United States
Gay men--Sexual behavior--United States
Television in education
AIDS (Disease) and the arts
AIDS (Disease)
Gender identity
AIDS (Disease)--Social aspects--United States
Video art
Motion pictures--History--Sources
Race relations--History
AIDS (Disease) in mass media
University of California, Berkeley--Students
Television programs--United States--History
Motion pictures--United States
Film festivals
Gay men's writings, American
Gay men--Poetry
Television broadcasting--California
Civil rights--United States
U.S. - social history
African Americans--Music
Gay and lesbian film festivals
Gay musicians
African Americans--Race identity
Stereotypes (Social psychology) in mass media
Homosexuality in art
Motion pictures and gay men
Gay men
Television film
African Americans--Attitudes
Racism in popular culture
Minorities in television
African Americans
American poetry
Television game shows
Gay communities--San Francisco Bay Area
Poets, American
Television broadcasting--United States
Black power--United States
African American HIV-positive men
Television--Advertising commercials
Graduate students--Scholarships, fellowships, etc
African Americans--Civil rights--United States
Educational television programs
AIDS (Disease)--Patients
Racism--United States--History--20th century
Gay men--United States--Social conditions
Fund raising
HIV-positive persons
African Americans in popular culture
African American gay men--Intellectual life
Civil rights movements--United States
African Americans--Caricatures
Gay rights
AIDS (Disease) and art
HIV-positive gay men
Art, American
Documentary television programs--Production and direction
African Americans on television
African American dancers
African Americans musicians


Birth 1957-02-03

Death 1994-04-05




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