“My weight and T-cell count are the same,” says Marlon Riggs at the start of his posthumously completed video essay Black Is… Black Ain’t, which, though subtitled “A Personal Journey Through Black Identity,” gives voice to a chorus of activists and public intellectuals like Angela Davis and Cornel West—along with lesser-known witnesses—on the subject of oppression and tensions within the mutably defined African-American world. Made in the wake of the racial fractures of the 1992 L.A. riots and Bill Clinton’s canny “Sister Souljah moment,” Riggs’s work is in part an exploration of semantics (“Colored is the white man’s word; you black,” he remembers telling a boyhood friend in Texas) as well as the politics manifested in sexism and homophobia. But the broad sociopolitical material is balanced by the microcosm of HIV-positive Riggs, speaking on camera from his hospital bed, chronicling the urgency of finishing this last communiqué on blackness and its internecine divisions before AIDS would claim him at age 37.
Since Black Is… Black Ain’t was finished, undoubtedly with love and a striving for fidelity, by Riggs’s collaborators, it includes sequences that play as ideas that didn’t fully reach fruition, such as the director walking nude through Carolina woods in some dreamlike search. The more specifically the dialectics address shame and exclusion, the better; after clips show Louis Farrakhan and Eddie Murphy gleefully taunting black women as sexual piranhas, bell hooks thunders, “If the black (empowerment) thing is a dick thing, we’re in trouble.” Riggs uses his grandmother’s boiling gumbo as a recurring visual metaphor for inclusion, and for testimony on the myriad biases toward some ingredients in the pot turns to Afrocentric nationalists, teen gangbangers who already speak of themselves in the past tense, dance interludes from Bill T. Jones, poetry on masculinity and father-son silences by Essex Hemphill, and interviewees who muse on issues like the hierarchy of light versus dark skin. A man raised in a Louisiana Creole community remembers a family picnic where the patriarch instituted an entry test for those looking “mulatto”: If hair was sufficiently kinky to prevent the pass of a comb, you were turned away. (Angela Davis, aside from her funny, assured observations on revolution and gender, makes a solid case for being the best-coiffed radical of the 20th century in her ’90s dreadlocks and news footage of her ’60s ’fro.)
After his PBS project on black gay identity, Tongues Untied, produced a culture-war skirmish in 1989, Riggs’s work benefited from increased visibility. The wider focus of Black Is… Black Ain’t occasionally threatens to become too diffuse, but Riggs’s end-of-life presence anchors the project’s themes, continually bringing the strands of black experience back to courage in the face of adversity and threatened extinction. Responding to an earlier scene where teen boys doubt the relevance of history by asking “What’s Martin Luther King gonna do for you now?,” the director relates a dream of laying on a riverbank with a silent but comforting Harriet Tubman. Fifteen years later, his gumbo’s medley of Zora Neale Hurston, Queen Latifah, Black Power, Bloods-Crips truce efforts, and a deathbed yelp of “Turn This Mutha Out” is a spirited, loving token of communal love and celebration.