By Brent Dorian Carpenter
Marlon Riggs was born February 3, 1957 in Ft. Worth, Texas. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard and received his Masters degree from the University of California-Berkeley, where he became a tenured professor in the Graduate School of Journalism. He was known for the insightful and controversial documentary films he made confronting racism and homophobia that thrust him onto center stage in America’s cultural wars.
Riggs’ first major work, “Ethnic Notions,” traces the evolution of racial stereotypes that have implanted themselves deep into the American psyche across 150 years of U.S. history. The documentary received a National Emmy Award and other top film festival honors.
It was Riggs’ second major work, “Tongues Untied,” which catapulted him into the debate over public funding of the arts. This moving, highly personal, sometimes angry, always poignant documentary was the first frank discussion of the black, gay experience on television. Though acclaimed by critics and awarded Best Documentary at numerous film festivals, its broadcast by the PBS series P.O.V. was immediately pounced upon by the Religious Right as a symbol of everything wrong with public funding for art and culture, particularly culture outside the mainstream. [Riggs had received $5,000 from a National Endowment for the Arts’ regional re-granting program (now eliminated).]
Riggs became a lightning rod in this fight because he was an outspoken activist for a more diverse and inclusive media. 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.
Riggs’ next major work, “Color Adjustment,” challenged television itself. It traced over 40 years of representations of African Americans through the distorting prism of prime time television, from “Amos ‘n’ Andy” to “Cosby.” “Color Adjustment” garnered television’s highest accolade, the George Foster Peabody Award, among others. That same year the American Film Institute granted Riggs their Maya Daren Lifetime Achievement Award.
Riggs’ final film, “Black Is … Black Ain’t,” is an outstanding example of the kind of committed television programming he struggled to support all his life. While in production, he maintained his teaching position at U.C. Berkeley, took on public speaking engagements, and continued to write. All the while, the HIV virus was ravaging his body. Hospitalized by kidney failure and other ailments, he continued to direct, and even appeared on camera. At the end of “Black Is … Black Ain’t,” Riggs looks up at the camera from his hospital bed and says, “As long as I have work then I’m not going to die, cause work is a living spirit in me.”
Riggs succumbed to AIDS April 5, 1994. “Black Is … Black Ain’t” was completed by his co-producer Nicole Atkinson and editor/co-director Christiane Badgely from the footage and notes he left behind.