White Americans have always stereotyped African Americans. But the rigid definitions of "blackness" that African Americans impose on each other, Riggs claims, have also been devastating. Is there an essential black identity? Is there a litmus test defining the real black man and true black woman?
Riggs uses his grandmother's gumbo as a metaphor for the rich diversity of black identities. His camera traverses the country, bringing us face to face with black folks young and old, rich and poor, rural and urban, gay and straight, grappling with the paradox of numerous, often contested definitions of blackness. 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, Barbara Smith, and Maulana Karenga to create a flavorful stew of personal testimony, music, and history.
While Black Is … Black Ain’t rejoices in black diversity, many speakers bare their pain at having been silenced or excluded because they were perceived as "not black enough" or conversely "too black." Black Is … Black Ain’t marshals a powerful critique of sexism, patriarchy, homophobia, colorism and cultural nationalism in the black family, church and other black institutions. Cornel West concludes, "We've got to conceive of new forms of community. We each have multiple identities and we're moving in and out of various communities at the same time. There is no one grand black community."
Riggs' own urgent quest for self-definition and community, as a black gay man dying from AIDS, ties the multiple perspectives together. Hooked up to an IV in his hospital bed, Riggs takes strength for his struggle against AIDS from the continual resilience of the African Americans in the face of overwhelming oppression. As his death nears, he conjures up the image of a black community nurturing and celebrating the difference and creativity in each one of us.
- Marlon Riggs Producer
Riggs's final film, Black Is...Black Ain't (1995), is an example of the kind of committed television programming he struggled to support all his life. It wasn't easy. While in production Marlon 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 — even appeared on camera — from his hospital bed and the film gradually took on a more personal tone as he got sicker.
Marlon finally succumbed to AIDS April 5, 1994. He was 37 years old. 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. Towards the end of Black Is...Black Ain't, Marlon 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 — 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."