Doc of the Day: Black Is... Black Ain't Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Black Is… Black Ain't

Posted in Days of Docs by - February 12, 2012

About to die, Marlon Riggs wanted to explore what it “meant” to be African American. The answers he found are appropriately varied. Day Seven of Black History Week.

Poster courtesy of Docurama Films.

Dir. Marlon Riggs, 1994, 87 min

There is, of course, no “correct” answer to the question of what does and doesn’t constitute “black.” When Marlon Riggs struck out to make Black Is… Black Ain’t in the 90’s, he wasn’t expecting to find one. Facing the last days of his life, Riggs wanted an appropriate capper to a career of making movies that focused on questions of identity. When a question has no true answer, then the answer comes half from the asking and half from the variety of the responses it gets. America is ideologically synonymous with diversity, and thus it only makes sense that the “answer” to “What is ‘black?'” is a full film’s worth of musings and ideas.

Riggs broke ground as a gay filmmaker exploring homosexual topics through his art. He made this doc as he was wasting away from AIDS, and he didn’t live to see it completed. This is as much his last testament as it is a meditation on race. He turns the camera on himself as much as he does other people, and besides his recollections on his experiences as a black person, he speaks free verse poems about dropping T-cell counts and increasing weariness. Riggs is exposing himself to us, both figuratively and literally; there’s a recurring image of him wandering naked through a forest, bringing to life a recurring dream of his. In making a statement about what he is, he hopes to make a statement about who he is. It’s a raw, brave venture, and it grounds and centers the loose, diverse thoughts being thrown about by the other interviewees.

Those interviewees include both intellectual figures, such as Cornel West and Angela Davis, and normal people, such as Riggs own family and people on the street. Through their eyes, the doc explores African-Americans’ shifting perceptions of themselves. It would have once been considered a grave insult to be called “black;” now the term is normalized. Davis remembers how that change occurred, how the “black is beautiful” movement claimed the word for a positive context, from its original negative definition. Self-image is a big part of the film; the building of a black identity in many ways meant reconstructing the collective sense of self-esteem that had been systematically torn down by centuries of repression. This manifests in details as small as girls accepting their “nappy” hair as natural and not inferior to “white” styles.

But this evolution is complex, since it could have negative repercussions. The black male was routinely emasculated by society as a way of oppression, and in attempting to reclaim their dignity, African-American men sometimes swung the pendulum to far in the opposite direction. Homosexuality was treated with particular scorn, and women were subjected to mistreatment, all in a misguided attempt to assert masculinity. Religious institutions, which played a significant role in the struggle for equal rights, have also played a role in this intolerance. Black Is… Black Ain’t is partially a plea for acceptance and solidarity among all African-Americans. Riggs cites Bayard Rustin, the gay man who organized the March on Washington, as an example of the value of all kinds of people.

These are stories all about feeling. Interpretive dance often illustrates people’s thoughts, frustrations, and triumphs. Poetry is read as well. The connective tissue of Marlon’s march towards death aside, the doc is freewheeling and emotive in structure. It seems to flow from one topic to another, giving the illusion of having no structure, even though it does. It’s cinematic jazz, smooth and cool and immersive. Again, the asking of the question, rather than the question itself, is what is important. The conclusion is that there is a rich mosaic of what is “black,” since it’s really a whole range of hues. It’s a spectrum of so many different people, united by a common ancestry.

But with every successive generation, that ancestry dilutes, as barriers between races break down. For all we worry about eliminating racism, the truth is that it won’t ever end until we all sex each other enough that we become something else. We won’t end hate until we cease to be human, because hate is a part of what it means to be human. But there are other, good parts to being human as well, and that’s what Black Is… Black Ain’t is about. Like all movies that deal with death, it is really about life, and in facing his death, Marlon Riggs created a beautiful tribute to the tradition he lived in.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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