“Black Is … Black Ain’t,” the final film by Marlon T. Riggs, who died of AIDS last April, is a provocative docu that probes the complex, ever-changing nature of black consciousness in American society. Unabashedly polemic in its exploration of “what is black,” this ambitious docu, which won the Filmmakers Trophy at this year’s Sundance Festival, is at times diffuse in scope, but its undeniable relevance should facilitate a limited theatrical release prior to wider exposure on TV, cable and in other venues.
Riggs couldn’t have left a more effective or challenging legacy to the African-American community, for his work is a powerful plea to blacks to reunite — despite diversity and divisiveness along lines of sex, gender and cultural nationalism.
What makes this docu unique is the context in which it was produced. In November 1993, Riggs was hospitalized for AIDS-related complications, hence preventing him from finishing the movie. It’s a tribute to his colleagues, Nicole Atkinson and Christine Badgley, that “Black Is” was completed posthumously from the footage and notes Riggs left behind. Film assumes an unexpectedly personal dimension with Riggs’ appearance as an onscreen character — usually seen or heard from his hospital bed.
“Black Is” is a logical follow-up to Riggs’ pioneering works, the Emmy-winning “Ethnic Notions” (1987), which eloquently documented long-prevailing stereotypes of black Americans, and “Tongues Untied” (1987), though the new film’s canvas is considerably more expansive. On another level, docu is a vitally combative response to Patrick Buchanan, who selectively edited a segment of “Tongues Untied” in his attack on the National Endowment for the Arts’ public funding of the arts.
Combining folk stories, personal interviews, archival material, music and dance, “Black Is” scrutinizes the contested, often self-canceling perceptions of blackness through the rich, but until recently untapped, history of African-Americans. Categories such as “What Is Black?,””Not Black Enough?” and “Too Black?” organize the footage into segments that are meant to provoke — and disquiet — rather than resolve issues.
Angela Davis is at her most articulate when she says, “We have obsession with naming ourselves, because for most of our lives we’ve been named by other people”; despite the diversity of perspectives, what emerges as a common thread is the refusal of African-Americans to have an identity imposed on them by outsiders, i.e., white society. Drawing on recent socio-psychological theories, most participants hold that identity is not fixed or exclusive, but fluid, open and based on multiple notions.
Ultimately, Riggs’ work offers a black consciousness that stems not so much from unity but communion, a vision that, rather than ignoring or flattening differences, accepts and embraces them with an immensely resourceful creativity.
Perhaps Cornell West expresses the idea best when he says, “We’ve got to conceive of new forms of community. We have multiple identities and we’re moving in and out of various communities at the same time. There is no one grand black community.”
“Black Is … Black Ain’t” is not just an eloquent tribute to Riggs and an insightful discussion of black consciousness, but a major contribution to the exploration of how we develop our identities.