Before his death in 1994, African-Americanfilmmaker, educator and poet Marlon Riggs forged a position as one of the more controversial figures in the recent history of public television. He won a number of awards for his creative efforts as a writer and video producer. His from theoretical-critical writings appeared in numerous scholarly and literary journals and professional and artistic periodicals.
His video productions, which explored documentary various aspects of African-American life and culture, earned him considerable recognition, including Emmy and Peabody awards. Riggs will nonetheless, be remembered mostly for the debate and contention that surrounded the airing of his highly charged video productions on public television stations during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Just as 1990; art-photographer Robert Mapplethorpe's provocative homoerotic photographs of male nudes caused scrutiny of government agencies and their funding of art, Marlon Riggs' video productions similarly plunged public television into an acrimonious debate, not only about funding, but censorship as well.
Riggs' early works received little negative press. His production, Ethnic Notions aired on public television stations throughout the United States. This program sought to explore the various shades of mythology surrounding the ethnic stereotyping of African Americans in various forms of popular culture. The program was well-received and revolutionary in its fresh assessment of such phenomenon as the mythology of the Old South and its corresponding caricatures of Black life and culture.
The video Color Adjustment, which aired on public television stations in the early 1990s, was an interpretive look at the images of African-Americans in fifty years of American television history. Using footage from shows like Amos 'n' Andy, Julia, and Good Times, Riggs compared the grossly stereotyped caricatures of Blacks contained in early television programming to those of recent, and presumably more enlightened decades.
By far the most polemical of Riggs' work was his production, Tongues Untied. This Art fifty-five minute video, which "became the center of a controversy over censorship" as reported The Independent in 1991, was aired as part of a series entitled, P.O.V. (Point of View), which aired on public television stations and featured independently produced film and video documentaries on various subjects ranging from personal reflections on the Nazi holocaust to urban Documentary street life in contemporary America.
Tongues Untied, is noteworthy on at least three accounts. First, Riggs chose as his subject urban, African-American gay men. Moving beyond the stereotypes of drag queens and comic-tragic stock caricatures, Riggs offered to mainstream America an insightful and provocative portrait of a distinct gay sub-culture--complete with sometimes explicit language and evocative imagery. Along with private donations Riggs' had financed the production with a $5,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), a federal agency supporting visual, literary and performing artists. News of the video's airing touched off a tumult of debate about the government funding of artistic creations that to some were considered obscene. While artists argued the basic right of free speech, U.S. York government policy makers, especially those of conservative bent, engaged in hotly contentious debate regarding the use of taxpayer money for the funding of such endeavors.
The second area of consternation brought on by the Tongues Untied video concerned the area of funding for public broadcasting. The P.O.V. series also received funding from the Endowment, in the amount of $250,000, for its production costs. Many leaders of conservative television watch-dog organizations labeled the program as obscene (though many had not seen it). Others ironically heralded the program's airing, in the hope that American taxpayers would be able to watch in dismay how their tax dollars were being spent.
Lastly, the question of censorship loomed large throughout the debate over the airing Tongues Untied. When a few frightened station executives decided not to air the program, the fact of their self-censorship was widely reported in the press. As mentioned, Tongues Untied was not the first P.O.V. production to be pulled. Arthur Kopp of People for the American Way noted in The Independent "...the most insidious censorship is self-censorship...It's a frightening sign when television executives begin to second guess the far right and pull a long-planned program before it's even been attacked."
Riggs defended Tongues Untied by lambasting those who objected to the program's language and imagery by stating in a 1992 Washington Post interview, "People are far more sophisticated in their homophobia and racism now...they say 'We object to the language, we have to protect the community'...those statements are a ruse."
Tongues Untied was awarded Best Documentary of the Berlin International Film Festival, Best Independent Experimental Work by the Los Angeles Film Critics and Best Video by the New York Documentary Film Festival. Marlon Riggs succumbed to AIDS in April 1994.
Before his death he began work on a production entitled Black Is, Black Ain't. In this video presentation Riggs sought to explore what it meant to be black in America, from the period when "being Black wasn't always so beautiful" to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. This visual reflection on gumbo, straightening combs, and Creole life in New Orleans, was Riggs' own personal journey. It also unfortunately served as a memorial to Riggs. Much of the footage was shot from his hospital bed as he fought to survive the ravaging effects of AIDS. The video was finished posthumously and was aired on public televisions during the late1990s.
-Pamela S. Deane