Black Is...Black Ain't

by Terrence Butcher

1 April 2009

cover art

Black Is...Black Ain't

Director: Marlon Riggs
Cast: arlon Riggs, Angela Davis, bell hooks, Cornel West, Bill T. Jones

US DVD: 27 Jan 2009

Every would-be-Emeril has their own particular recipe for gumbo, and the late documentary filmmaker Marlon Riggs was no exception. As he states in his final project Black Is…Black Ain’t, gumbo’s “got a little bit of everything in it”. Riggs spends about 90-minutes applying this rubric to the contemporary African-American community in Black Is…Black Ain’t, a deceptively gentle plea for black Americans to embrace each other and accept difference.

For those unfamiliar with Riggs, he was a pioneering creator of documentaries which explored African-American identity during the 20th century. His 1989 work, Tongues Untied, scandalized many prominent conservatives, most notably the acid-tongued hatemonger Jesse Helms, for its joyous depiction of black gay male sexuality. Indeed, as an openly gay man, Riggs was hardly an insider in the black community, and Tongues Untied sparked a tiresome political brouhaha about the distribution of National Endowment for The Arts funding. One doubts that Tyler Perry will ever encounter such problems.

Black Is…Black Ain’t is perhaps Riggs’ most comprehensive examination of black culture, and he doesn’t shrink from airing the dirty laundry of America’s most maligned yet imitated ethnic group, no doubt to the consternation of some. Chief among his targets is an obsession with skin tone, how that has historically influenced identity, and been used as a tool for inclusion and exclusion.

Several of Riggs’ interviewees discuss how the identification label for folks of African descent changed over the decades from “colored” to “Negro” to “black” to “African-American”, although those two latter terms are used interchangeably today. This fact is juxtaposed with a look at time-worn dictionary definitions of the word “black”: deeply stained with dirt; malignant; soiled; foul – an entire gauntlet of negative connotations. Makes one wonder how black attire became so fashionable in urban circles.

Former Black Panther-now educator Angela Davis reminisces about childhood days down South, when calling someone “You black African!” was a let’s-throw-down-honey insult, and you best be careful who you said it to. Of course, one immediately thinks of Louisiana’s venerable Creole society, essentially the product of race-mixing between French (usually males) and African-American (generally females). This blend created a culture of distinct culinary delicacies, colloquialisms, and, ominously, exclusionary attitudes modeled on those practiced by white Americans.

Indeed, one gentleman recalls parties enthusiastically attended by light-skinned blacks, where, astonishingly, an appointed doorperson stood at the entranceway. Any individual wishing to enter had a comb passed through his hair. If this comb glided easily, you could stick around. If not, it was understood that you should hit the road. Creole culture – of the time – had no use for duskier-hued American blacks – themselves a stew of European and African bloodlines, with occasional Native seasoning.

Riggs also wades into the treacherous waters of gender inequality in the black community. Davis speaks about the hostile vibes she got from male Panthers, who were apparently unwilling to or uninterested in recognizing the rights of sisters who wanted a say in the movement, a situation which left her fighting two battles.

Marlon Riggs

Marlon Riggs

The cudgel also comes down on gay African-Americans who may have it the worst, because in an oppressed culture they’re viewed as superfluous at best, and counter-productive at the other end of the pendulum. Riggs himself was not merely homosexual, but also stricken with AIDS, and in declining health during the making of Black Is…Black Ain’t. His appearances in the documentary primarily take place from his hospital bed.  He died before filming was complete, leaving his colleagues to finish the work.

Noted gay writer/poet Essex Hemphill – also now deceased – offers commentary on his own struggles, and mention is made of strident Afrocentric pundits who mythologize pre-colonial Africa as a verdant Eden of milk and honey, devoid of brutality or homosexuals, a notion that academic bell hooks snarkily dismisses as “bullshit”.

We also visit the Oyotunji African Village, located in South Carolina, a makeshift commune of kente-garbed African-Americans living, to a certain extent, as their ancestors in West Africa might have. Their lives suggest that there are numerous traditions of ancient African cultures that still have value today, and the celebration of Kwanzaa may be a reflection of this, although that holiday is an American invention first observed in the late ‘60s.

In one sequence Riggs, obviously weakening, sings ecstatically from his hospital bed, skipping through several genres of black American music, which essentially is American music, because very little of what we recognize today as popular music would exist without the sounds brought by the people from Africa. Carlos Santana affirmed this in a recent chat on The Tavis Smiley Show, as did musicologist and author Ned Sublette in his seminal, endlessly fascinating book The World That Made New Orleans, and I’ll forgive Little Richard his braggadocio in claiming, “I am the architect of rock ‘n’ roll!” Inarguably, music is integral to African-American life as a means of communication as well as escape, and this has been so since before there were African-Americans.

Considering its subject matter, Black Is…Black Ain’t is a film unlikely to be seen anywhere but PBS or selected film festivals. It’s not a flashy, grandstanding conversation piece, a la Michael Moore, but a more straightforward, 60 Minutes-style examination of where the African-American community stands today. I do wish that this DVD package included more than just the movie and a brief biography of Riggs, but that doesn’t detract from the film’s socio-intellectual content. 

Its primary strength is its facility in presenting the multiple points of view which exist amongst black people. What makes a person culturally “black”? Can unity be found in diversity? Vexing questions, and no single response would satisfy all. Marlon Riggs attempted to answer them, not merely in his films, but also through the way he lived his life.

Black Is...Black Ain't


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