Marlon Riggs

(1957–1994)

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Marlon Troy Riggs (1957–1994) was an award-winning filmmaker, artist, educator, poet, and gay rights activist.

Marlon Riggs was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1957. He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1978, with a major in History. While at Harvard, Riggs pursued an independent study of the portrayal of "male homosexuality in American fiction and poetry." Riggs received a master's degree in journalism with a specialization in documentary film in 1981 from the University of California, Berkeley. 

Riggs wrote, produced, and directed eight films and videos. He also wrote numerous scholarly articles and held interviews on identity, politics, censorship, African American culture, and documentary film practice. Working during the height of the culture wars of the 1990s, Riggs examined highly contested topics within the fabric of American identity and African American culture. Riggs’ approach to filmmaking—addressing questions of cultural memory and race relations in America—were exhibited in his films, Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment.

A poster for Tongues Untied featuring a large black and white image of two men holding each other.

Poster for Tongues Untied featuring Marlon Riggs and Essex Hemphill, 1989. 

Poster design by Gary Rorick; image by Ron Simmons.

2014.169.1.1

Gift of Jack Vincent in memory of Marlon Riggs, © Signifyin' Works

Riggs explored more personal topics such as sexuality and his HIV status in Tongues Untied, Affirmations, No Regret, Black Is…Black Ain’t. The latter productions made him vulnerable to criticism and political ridicule by right-wing conservatives and individuals who did not share his perspectives on American history, public media, or art. Most significantly, Riggs was able to use his films and writings to shift notions of shame and despair around homosexuality into acts of resistance and agency.  Marlon Riggs died from AIDS-related complications on April 5, 1994.

View objects relating to Marlon Riggs

Top image: Poster advertising Marlon Riggs: 10 Years After, 2004. Gift of Jack Vincent in memory of Marlon Riggs. 2014.169.2.2