Black Is . . . Black Ain’t

Director: Marlon T. Riggs

Institute History

  • 1995 Sundance Film Festival


"Is there an ‘essence’ to black identity? Can blackness be reduced to some unitary core experience which all African-Americans should eagerly aspire to, if not already share? . . . Above all, what has this cost us, black and nonblack Americans alike—this casual assumption of and endless searching for a ‘definitive’ black identity?” These are some of the questions Marlon Riggs asked as he started on what, alas, would be the last piece in his extraordinary body of work. (The Emmy- and Peabody-Award-winning creator of Tongues Untied and Color Adjustment died last April; Black Is . . . Black Ain’t was completed by his production team.)

Not one to stay behind the camera, Riggs again serves as narrator and guide to his passionate explorations of identity. This time he plants himself firmly in our gaze even at his most vulnerable state in his hospital bed. This is anything but a dour journey, however. As always, we are stimulated and exalted by this artist’s intellectual vigor and aesthetic imagination. Likening his tone and visual style to his grandmother's quilts, Riggs threads his themes into an interlacing patchwork of poems, postmodern dances, visual essays, first-person narratives, personal confessions, dramatic skits, and what he refers to as “vérité vignettes.”

Traveling to locations around the United States, Black Is . . . Black Ain’t features frank discussions with a cross section of African-Americans as they grapple with issues of personal and communal identity. Also central are interviews with a provocative array of artists and cultural critics, including Angela Davis, Essex Hemphill, bell hooks and Cornel West. Woven throughout is Riggs’s own story of being “different” by dint of color, class, sexuality—and AIDS. Ultimately, he asks, “How do we incorporate crisis and affliction into a notion of identity that is still life affirming and empowering?” One answer is to make an empowering and life-affirming work like Black Is . . . Black Ain'’t.

— Robert Hawk

Screening Details

Sundance Film Festival Awards

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