You up to anything the next couple of days? You up for anything? Let me put it another way: Are you up for a little of everything — a cannon blast of ideas about blackness and gayness and representation, sure, but also about how to devastate and illuminate and deviate, with a camera, a soundtrack and editing, With finger snaps? I’m asking because the Brooklyn Academy of Music has got this weeklong Marlon Riggs retrospective, and it’s so good you’ll weep — and crack up and take notes (even if that’s not a thing you’ve ever done in a movie theater). If you’ve never heard of Marlon Riggs, you’ll wonder why the hell not.
How could an artist this smart, this prescient, this frank, transparent, curious, ruminative and courageous — this funny — escape your notice? Why haven’t these trenchant, masterful video essays, with insinuatingly tangy names like “Color Adjustment,” “Ethnic Notions” and “Black Is… Black Ain’t,” been a part of not just your movie diet but also your sense of self-understanding? How come nobody told me?!
For one thing, Riggs made them in the late 1980s and early 1990s, on video. And they’re short. The most famous — and notorious — of them, “Tongues Untied,” isn’t even an hour long. For another, this is 30-year-old work, and what it portends and breaks down and unpacks, what it depicts and imagines and celebrates, has largely been absorbed by the culture and by our politics. “Ethnic Notions” uses on-camera interviews with academics and an army of racist clips and old footage to explain, rigorously, how black has only recently been considered beautiful.
We’re openly queerer now. We’re blacker and browner. And if we’re not any angrier or more confessional now than we were 30 years ago, we’ve certainly got a lot more kiosks upon which to post our grievances and truths. That’s just the identity stuff, though.
Riggs was a formal innovator, too. His work invests a television-video format with alarming complexity: montages and interjections, ghostly palimpsests and these haunting rhythmic visual chants. “Tongues Untied” is Riggs’s unclassifiable scrapbook of black gay male sensibility (a hallucinatory whir of style, memory, psychology), and it includes a reminiscence that starts with Riggs’s round, balding head facing the camera musing on the euphemistic insult of the word “punk.” As the story unspools, he steadily intercuts his story with close-ups of mouths speaking other insults until he’s made music of all the slurs. And the opening passage repeats the words “brother to brother” until they become a wall of erotic self-protection. So it’s more like, “brothertobrotherbrothertobrotherbrothertobrotherbrothertobrotherbrothertobrotherbrothertobrother.”
This is storytelling that arises from joy and pain and pride (Riggs’s clearest emotional forebear is James Baldwin) and culminates in scores of assembled bits. Movie and dream, yes. But mosaic, too. Maybe it looks like the past. But it also looks like Vine, Tumblr and assorted corners of YouTube.
But what’s so electrifying about this BAM series is you watch these films now and discover that he didn’t innovate himself into obsolescence. This isn’t time capsule art. Instead of that fiasco of a news conference Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, held last weekend about his stint with blackface, he could have just played “Ethnic Notions,” instead. It makes a lot more sense, and, jarringly, it’s timeless.
The BAM series is called “Race, Sex & Cinema: The World of Marlon Riggs.” And there’s nothing wrong with that “of.” But it’s the world according to and beyond him, too, the world he begat. The programmer of the series, Ashley Clark, has made sure to include movies made with his spirit, like Rodney Evans’s “Brother to Brother” (2004) and Barry Jenkins’s “Moonlight” (2016), with shorts by Cheryl Dunye and Su Friedrich.
This work really did arrive in a more perilous time, though. The country was at the height of its so-called culture wars, in which religious and parental crusaders sought to rid public institutions and the national airwaves of allegedly morally dubious work. And that work tended to involve sex. Black culture was also under siege, in certain white corners, as being lewd and impoverished. It was the age of Eddie Murphy and 2 Live Crew, on the one hand, and the Huxtables on the other. The Marlon Riggses of the world — black gay men; black gay men with AIDS (Riggs died in 1994, at 37) — embodied this disjunction of the era’s taboos. The Marlon Riggses of the world were invisible.
But not to me. I saw “Tongues Untied” on channel 12, WHYY, my PBS channel in Philadelphia. I was 13. And it was like this… secret. I didn’t know what I was watching. And I’m guessing neither did the conservative politicians and watchdog groups that distorted the video and attacked Riggs and PBS for using taxpayer money to fund “pornographic art.”
Riggs wrote a singeing rebuttal that The Times published in 1992. It included a serious analysis of the racism in President George Bush’s Willie Horton campaign ad and an equation of his treatment with Hortons’ and ended this way:
“The insult in this brand of politics extends not just to blacks and gays, the majority of whom are taxpayers, and would therefore seem entitled to some measure of representation in publicly financed art. The insult confronts all who now witness and are profoundly outraged by the quality of political — one hesitates to say Presidential — debate. The vilest form of obscenity these days is in our nation’s leadership.”
He knew that what taxpayers would have been funding was a window into his soul.
[Why pop culture just can’t deal with black male sexuality.]
At some point in “Tongues Untied,” one man’s personal rumination peaks with a flight of performance artistry, about a proclamation of erotic dominance and anal sex, by saying, “We are now entering the 5th dimension of our sexual consciousness — the ride is rough.” You could scour the internet for a month and find nothing like this, nothing this direct and strange and poetic, nothing this deeply in touch with itself. You’d find only this. Some of that’s because you’re never going to find another Marlon Riggs.
Who else would combine a serious history of black people on American television — as told, in part, by Norman Lear, Diahann Carroll, Esther Rolle and highly regarded academics like Henry Louis Gates Jr. — with an indictment of that history, the way Riggs does in “Color Adjustment?” He takes a funny clip of Vanessa Huxtable complaining to her parents that they’re rich and lays over it a sardonic Reaganomics statistic: “News Update: One of every two black children in the U.S. is born poor … Median black male earnings declined 10% since 1979 … Black teenage joblessness still tops 30% … Details at 11.”
Who else making art would have had the moral clairvoyance to actually superimpose over a close-up of “I Spy”-era Bill Cosby the question, “Is this a ‘positive’ image?”?
Who would have thought to fuse a documentary about colorism, homophobia and misogyny among black people with a documentary about his deteriorating health? That’s what Riggs did with “Black Is… Black Ain’t,” a bluesy intellectual achievement but, also, given Riggs’s appearance from his sick bed, a poignantly crepuscular one.
There’s no reason all of this work should still work, that it should still hypnotize, upset, delight and astound. But genius has a way of arguing for its permanence. And Riggs was someone who could see in multiples. He interrogated the many parts that make the whole. He could see the past, present and future at once. He knew the historical terrain would stay rocky, and that the ride would, indeed, be rough.