Black Is…Whatever It Means to You (Extra Credit)

In this screening, Emory’s Cinematheque featured Marlon Rigg’s complex view of what constitutes black identity, which he described as an all-encompassing identity filled with nuanced intersectionalities. Black Is…Black Ain’t challenges the view of a singular existence prescribed to black individuals here in the United States, celebrates the individualities people have within their own black identities, and also serves as an autobiography of sorts which explains Marlon Rigg’s personal view of his own identity. In many ways, I feel that this film was Marlon Rigg’s attempt to recon with his own identity as he suffered from AIDS and knew he was approaching the end of his life. This way of visually capturing the black identity projected it as a celebratory and deeply layered one that otherwise is underrepresented in artistic forms of media.

The documentary begins with a close examination of what “black is beautiful” means. Angela Davis, whose interviews appeared several times throughout the narrative, claimed that black Americans were “obsessed with naming [themselves]” due to the fact that “during most of [their] history, people gave names to [them].” Specifically, she was referring to the reclaimed description of black for African Americans, one that rejects the white-society-generated derision of “colored” and instead rejuvenates afrocentricity and African culture. Riggs speaks his own mind about “black is beautiful,” citing an argument he once got in where he had to defend the description, and explains that being African or black, as they were often considered synonymous during the Civil Rights Movement and before, is an acknowledgement of heritage and culture rather than a surrender to racial slurs.

While this documentary is clearly a testimony to racial identity and racial conflicts within the United States, it also is one that investigates how the roles of gender and sexuality inform (or don’t inform) one’s own black identity. I found this to be a particularly compelling element of the narrative, as Riggs himself was a gay man suffering from AIDS during the epidemic and just after (died in 1994), and many of the subjects he interviewed spoke about their own struggles as non-heteronormative members of the black community. The film delved into the ways in which black men, during the times of slavery and just after especially, were depicted as mockably weak, or simply just primitive and beastial. Later, several subjects described a realization that now black men are hypersexualized, aggressively so, both by racial stereotypes enforced through society and within the community itself. As a result of this hypersexualization, which of course applied to heteronormativity encouraged by many churches, many black LGBTQ+ members and many women feel that black empowerment wasn’t designed to include them. Riggs argues that instead, to be black and to be a man “is to be human” and to embrace the masculine and feminine features of yourself all the same. This part of the film reminded me of how different ethnographies can be from artistically designed documentaries, where instead of an observation purely, the narrative and tone created is an overt and obvious choice.

The discussion following the screening further emphasized Rigg’s metaphors within his own life for finding freedom in your black identity. It was agreed upon that the shots of him running nude through a patch of woods was representative of him embracing his individuality–his blackness, his gayness, his manhood. Perhaps the most profound discussion point was that Riggs created this documentary to emphasize the topic of identity in a multiplicity of ways, and that there is not one definition of blackness, nor should there be, as every member of a community must celebrate his/her individualities and celebrate whatever their culture means to them.