Grand Saline, Texas, a town east of Dallas, has a history of racism, a history the community doesn’t talk about.
Marlon Riggs explores questions of "blackness" and black identity.
Marlon Riggs was known for making insightful and controversial documentary films confronting racism and homophobia that thrust him onto center stage in America's "cultural wars." Born in Ft. Worth Texas on February 3, 1957, Marlon graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard and received his masters' degree from the University of California, Berkeley where… Show more he became a tenured professor in the Graduate School of Journalism. Marlon's second major work, Tongues Untied (1989), catapulted him into the debate over public funding of the arts. This documentary was the first frank discussion of the black, gay experience on television. Though acclaimed by critics and awarded Best Documentary at Berlin and other 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. Senator Jesse Helms was point man for the chorus of denunciation. Then Patrick Buchanan re-edited a 20-second clip from the film (a blatant copyright infringement) for a sensationalized TV ad "hit piece" blasting the NEA during the 1992 presidential primary. It was perhaps inevitable that Marlon would become a lightning rod in this fight since 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. Expressing his vision of a more democratic, more inclusive television, he testified, "ITVS is supposed to shake you up, to address areas of deep taboo no one is willing to talk about, to give voice to communities which have been historically silenced. America needs to realize the value of having a communicative institution designed to challenge us and upset us. There is value in doing something more than making culture answerable to the marketplace." Show less
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.