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Marlon Riggs: Signifying and Seeing

Tongues Untied

in Filmmaking
on Jun 21, 2021

I realized that I was bisexual immediately before being dropped into a Long Island diocesan Catholic high school with a standardly devout administration where I didn’t know anyone. I stayed in the closet for about a year before I started to tell my new school friends. That said, the teachers and students were fairly liberal, if not particularly outspoken. I found a small sense of community in the school’s impressive theater department, although all the other guys were straight. It wasn’t until I took dance classes that I would interact with the only other queer male students I could find, two extraordinarily gifted dancers. I was not. At the time, I felt that I wouldn’t be able to be effectively perceived as queer, given that I wasn’t as graceful. Did this mean I wasn’t as gay as they were? I had figured that all queer men carry themselves with grace and strength. For years, I had considered myself to be clumsy and clownish, and accepted this fate with self-deprecation. But I yearned to harness some sense of agility.

Over time, I discovered my strengths. Dancing wasn’t one of them, but I learned how to use my voice. I challenged the administration on their refusal to allow same-sex couples to attend prom together. My senior year AP literature class was taught by a stodgy old nun. One of the last assignments she gave us was to write about a banned book—I chose Edmund White’s The Joy of Gay Sex. Once I got to college, leaving my four-year sentence of religious education behind, I saw my queerness reflected back to me through cinema in the avant-garde films of Kenneth Anger. But it wasn’t until I met the revelatory work of Marlon Riggs that I understood how I could express myself through filmmaking. These works spoke to me with immediate, startling clarity. Here was someone, a marginalized figure, celebrating himself and his community not just through dance, but poetry, writing and the undeniable power of the camera lens.

Riggs was a master of the documentary genre known as essay filmmaking, a genre which, broadly speaking, is usually tied to some sort of original or secondary text. For example: in Chantal Akerman’s News From Home, the filmmaker pairs patient, lonely footage of New York City with letters from her mother, which she reads in voiceover. In his masterpiece Tongues Untied, Riggs utilizes poems by the great Essex Hemphill to complement his intimate portrait of Black gay men. But in addition to the musicality of Hemphill’s poetry, Riggs includes personal anecdotes from these men, including himself. Working at a time when being out was still controversial, he explicitly places not just his words, but his very being, within the frame. Riggs’s films rigorously investigated just what exactly it meant to occupy this precarious shade of American life—what that experience felt like on a bodily, day-to-day level, how that experience could be explained from his particular point of view to a presumably white, heterosexual audience and how, through the use of racist stereotypes in mass media by those who had the power to shape its images, those experiences were often ultimately conveyed. He set out to question the status quo of representation, to reframe historical gazes.

Riggs implemented this technique in a rather straightforward way. In Color Adjustment, which surveyed the ways in which African-Americans were portrayed specifically through the medium of TV shows, he occasionally displays on-screen text. These bits of text foreground images of Black characters, asking simple, direct questions like, “Is this a positive image?” In one astounding sequence, Riggs slowly overlays a scene from the sitcom Good Times of the character J.J. dancing with archival imagery of a minstrel. The resemblance is irrefutable. In Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regret), Riggs introduces viewers to HIV-positive individuals through a series of vignettes. Again, he uses music, poetry, and personal divulgences. At first, Riggs obscures the faces of his subjects. The first talking head is seen only through a slit of light, just a pair of gentle, searching eyes. It’s as if he is peering through the blinds of a closet. We meet the next few subjects through the disembodied features of their faces–floating lips and eyeballs, gesticulations. Slowly, as the film goes on, the full faces of these people are revealed. The darkness burns away along with our notions. One might argue that the filmmaker’s methods were a tad didactic. I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but I believe that the obviousness of Riggs’ style was absolutely integral to what made his films, ironically, so radical. At a moment in time where queer people, and people of color, were scarcely represented in the mainstream in any sort of meaningful way, Marlon Riggs set out to quite literally blaze a trail upon which his brothers and sisters, audience members and artists alike, could proudly and boldly make their presence known.

These films showed me what was possible. As someone who has always felt most comfortable expressing myself through writing, I embraced essay filmmaking and took Riggs’s courage to heart. A fledgling film student with scant experience, I feebly attempted to process my journey of becoming an out bisexual man through this genre. I made a short film about the traumatizing hatred I faced from an ex-girlfriend’s mother who told her daughter I’d break her heart, that I was disgusting and confused. I told this story through title cards, literalizing the essay form. It was as if I had constructed a silent film of sorts, because to speak of these things out loud still felt so terrifying. I later gathered the courage to record voiceovers for my later projects. I filmed myself applying lipstick, getting my nails painted and spoke about how I had been met with tension from ex-partners–straight women–who felt threatened and insulted by my desire to indulge in effeminacy. Without the legacy Riggs left behind, and without his indomitable tenacity, I would have felt impossibly alone. 

This month, the Criterion Collection will release a set of films by the pioneering black queer filmmaker. The release of this set, entitled The Signifiyin’ Works of Marlon Riggs, is an occasion long overdue, no doubt timed in celebration of Pride Month. This set comes after an article in The New York Times last year: “Why Are There So Few Black Directors in The Criterion Collection?” The piece laid out an obvious disparity of films included in the esteemed catalogue that were made by directors of color, especially Black filmmakers. There are obvious risks in elevating one name, Criterion, to the be-all-end-all standard of film distribution. That said, Criterion does have something of a reputation of being a gold standard for physical media releases, and it was clear that something needed to change in order to more honestly reflect the racial makeup of cinema and society itself. A few months later, it was announced that Ashley Clark, former director of film programming at BAM, would join Criterion in a newly created role of curatorial director. Clark’s presence in this position, frankly, as a person of color, marks a welcome shift in and expansion of what Criterion’s output looks like. In fact, Clark is arguably the foremost individual to thank for The Signifyin’ Works coming to Criterion, as he originally programmed these films in a profile-raising series at BAM.

That this collection is described as Signifyin’ is, well, significant. Marlon Riggs was an expert of journalism, media, documentary–mediums of conveying information to a broader public that have an undetachable relationship to truth, image and representation. Stuart Hall, the Marxist sociologist and cultural theorist, wrote in The Work of Representation that “meaning does not inhere in things, in the world. It is constructed, produced. It is the result of a signifying practice—a practice that produces meaning, that makes things mean.” When Riggs took it upon himself to embark on this cinematic exercise, to make these beautiful films, he was thinking of representation not just as how we talk about it in terms of something such as the entertainment industry or media landscape today. He was also thinking of representation in the same way Hall was, from a fundamentally sociological or academic viewpoint. Signifiers and signs are key terms in understanding the basics of representation, and Riggs’ use of the word signifyin’ in his writing and in describing his work was pointed. The apostrophe itself is a sign: These films are works of shorthand. Riggs demonstrates what the cutting gesticulation and sound of a snap, a firecracker lobbed at bullshit, holds in its weight, or how some bigot who spits out “faggot” or “nigger” means to abbreviate a man’s humanity, to bruise his identity with history’s curses. Riggs conveys the language of the Black/queer experience through these signifyin’ gestures, slang, slurs.

The ways in which we as a culture currently think about representation look a bit different. Joe Biden recently pointed to the regularity with which interracial couples are depicted in television commercials. “They’re selling soap, man!” the President said. Recent, no less credible attempts by franchises, production companies, corporations and the like to pass off the slimmest depictions of these individuals as groundbreaking, praise-worthy heroism is just pathetic. In Avengers: Endgame, co-director Joe Russo sticks himself into a scene as a gay man who talks about how he’ll be going on his first date since the bad guy Thanos apparently made him disappear. At the end of the most recent Star Wars film, two lesbian Resistance fighters kiss each other in celebration. These moments are purposely brief and inconsequential. Their smallness within these franchise tapestries is not meant, as the companies behind them may want you to believe, to casually normalize the inclusion of marginalized figures. Rather, these moments are confined to such limited screen time so that the companies can simply edit them out when they send their products to countries with more obviously homophobic views, as has indeed been done in Dubai.

Who do these corporations really want to represent? 

Another more recent example of this embarrassing corporatization of queer identity came in the form of a widely-ridiculed Twitter thread from a Netflix account called “Most,” apparently the “home of Netflix’s LGBTQ+ storytelling.” The thread began with a screenshot of a pizza from the movie Mystic Pizza. The tweet read: “Sometimes, an inanimate object in a movie can be so powerful, so important, so striking that you *know* the object is a lesbian. Like the pizza in Mystic Pizza — all pizza served by Julia Roberts is lesbian pizza. This is an absolutely urgent thread of Lesbian Objects In Film.” Now, yes, this was meant as some kind of comedy. But this nonsensical bullshit is not funny, nor does it serve as a beacon of legitimate queer representation. When a giant corporation such as Netflix remarks of Juliane Moore’s wardrobe in the in-no-way-queer film Crazy Stupid Love, “While women’s scarves are typically canonically straight, a scarf that is casually and delicately draped around or near Julianne Moore’s neck is a lesbian (this is science),”instead of including more queer films on their site, or even any film made before the 1980s, it’s hard to take their supposed commitment to “LGBTQ+ storytelling” earnestly.

It seems that we’ve followed Riggs’s understanding of how representation can manifest itself through gestures, codes, signs, but have allowed ourselves to be content solely with the superficiality of the sign itself. The trans writer P.E. Moskowitz recently warned in a great essay entitled I’m So Trans When I Turn on My Lamp, “By detaching transness and queerness from politics, from in-person community, from physical touch, from the things we produce when we are together, and attaching it instead to things that were produced without us in mind — like blockbuster movies and coffee with ice cubes in it — we invite the exploitation of our identities and our communities for profit.” It is not altogether ridiculous to suggest that a character in a film is bisexual by bathing them in the light of a pride flag, or by calling attention to their playful posture. To rely solely on that, however, is lazy, and fails to actually represent anything at all. I’ve seen this phenomenon more and more frequently, and it feels to me like those who have the power to create truly encompassing representation have managed to exploit this loophole of sorts. They’ve seized upon a way to make an absence of queerness pass for representation.

In excusing the amputation of romance and sexuality as key elements of queer identity for so-called representation within media that does not even understand what it intends to signify, we will allow the dominant forces of culture to erase us from plain sight. And so I urge everyone to seek out this truly laudatory compendium of the late, great, Marlon Riggs’s films. In watching Riggs’s work, you may see yourself truly reflected—not through the bloodsucking guise of commodification, but the honesty of one’s soul committed to art.

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