I didn't want to write a poem that said "blackness is"
Because we know better than anyone
That we are not one or ten or ten thousand things
Not one poem...
Elizabeth Alexander Today's News
Black Is...Black Ain't serves as eloquent visual testimony to the fact that African Americans are not, in Alexander's exacting words, "one or ten or ten thousand things." This ground-breaking documentary, the last one crafted by the artful hands of filmmaker Marlon Riggs, identifies and confronts those forces that have attempted to consolidate, reduce, and contain the lives and experiences of African Americans. By naming these forces and marshalling a powerful critique, Black Is...Black Ain't illuminates the complexities of black life. Riggs' film thus constructs a cinematic space for ten thousand ways of seeing and understanding blackness in America.
At first glance, the argument that blackness encompasses a myriad of experiences may seem self-evident and non-controversial. Yet ever since the first African arrived in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619 - in chains - Americans of African descent have been subject to efforts to erase their differences and in so doing, their humanity.
During the first several centuries, white people imposed their own definitions of blackness on African Americans. Insidious stereotypes alleging that all Africans were savages, even cannibals, were deemed credible. By the end of the nineteenth century, society-at-large recognized a few basic stock characters with names such as the mammy, the Uncle, the pickaninnie, and the coon. The origins and tenacity of these stereotypes which fueled anti-black prejudice well into the twentieth century were traced by Riggs' earlier Emmy-winning documentary, Ethnic Notions.
Because one's black identity was so often limited, distorted and made shameful by whites, asserting a new black identity became important to many African Americans. As Angela Davis observes in the film, "Perhaps we have an obsession with naming ourselves because for most of our lives we have been named by other people." Ironically, Riggs claims, soon awkward and erroneous generalizations were being imposed upon African Americans not only by those outside the race but by black people themselves. Certain behaviors, ways of speaking, social practices, even dress began to be touted by African Americans as "black" while others were deemed "white."
But is there an essential black identity? Is there a litmus test defining the real black man or true black women? And what has this cost us - black and non-black alike - this compulsion for a clear and singular black identity?
Black Is...Black Ain't jumps right into the middle of these conflicts over identity. It explores how racism, music, family, religion, sexual orientation, nationalism, and intra-racial class, gender, and color castes have collectively shaped the experience and meaning of blackness for African Americans. Riggs eschews traditional narrative for a more layered and poetic strategy for representing the complexity of black identity. His camera travels across the country, from the rural South to middle class suburbs to the inner city bringing the viewer face to face with black folks young and old, rich and poor, rural and urban, gay and straight. He mixes performances by gifted artists - such as choreographer Bill T. Jones and poet Essex Hemphill - with personal testimony, commentary, and quotations into what one critic called, "a sizzling gumbo of thought and emotion." In fact, a huge gumbo pot bubbling with crab, crayfish, sausage, chicken and onions is Riggs' recurring metaphor for the richness of black culture.
But while Black Is... rejoices in the many flavors of what black is, it also brings us the testimony of individuals who have felt uncomfortable and even ostracized because they don't fit the mold. We hear from people whose behavior, speech, sexual orientation, class or complexion has somehow rendered them "not black enough." The resulting dilemmas are supposed to be suffered in silence no matter the pain they cause, and African Americans who call attention to them are often rejected for "airing dirty laundry." But Black Is... doesn't shrink from confronting several cultural institutions and ideological concepts rarely criticized in public by African Americans. Riggs challenges us to confront the sexism, homophobia and other practices which hurt and divide black people.
For example, the people and organizations who launched the Black Power movements and coined the slogan "Black is Beautiful" are often celebrated by contemporary scholars. Many of today's youth look back to the 1960s with romantic longing for an era when good and bad seemed clearly delineated. In revisiting the black movements for social justice and power of the 1960s, Black Is...Black Ain't reveals moments of immeasurable courage - but also episodes of rampant sexism and homophobia. Because white society had so emphatically attempted to shame and enfeeble black males, the idea of reclaiming one's 'manhood' assumed prominence. Riggs brings us several women who claim "Black is Beautiful" really meant black men are beautiful and describe how the Black Power movement too-often equated blackness with masculinity and relegated women to the margins or treated them as sex objects.
The black family has been traumatized since the first male African captives were taken from their homes in Africa. Riggs shows us incorporative family structures and other strategies African Americans have adopted to overcome the obstacles to family life. But while the film clearly salutes strong, loving, extended black families, it also acknowledges the pain and gulfs that can characterize black parent / child relationships. Cultural critic bell hooks (sic) recalls the confusion and anger she felt as a child the night she witnessed her father throw her mother out of their home. Poet Essex Hemphill and Riggs himself ponder the consequences of patriarchy and the painful silences and lack of communication which too often separate black fathers and sons.
African American political leaders often emerge from the black church, and the church's contributions to the empowerment of black people are usually applauded. Most standard studies of the black church are uncritical. In Black Is...Black Ain't, Riggs takes his camera crew into the sanctuary of an urban black gay and lesbian church. Here the minister invokes the old-style call and response form of worship, and makes viewers think about how traditional black church doctrine spurns homosexuals and fans homophobia.
Although Riggs assembled a pantheon of well-known African American cultural critics, some of Black Is...Black Ain't's most profound moments resonate with the voices of more anonymous black Americans, ones often omitted from conventional documentaries which focus on leaders and spokesmen, as they wrestle with their own conflicts over blackness. Black Is..Black Ain't introduces viewers to a group of African Americans who have constructed a West African-style village in South Carolina, to members of a Louisiana Creole family, to residents of an isolated island off the eastern seabord, to young men and women from South Central LA, and to middle-class blacks in the suburbs.
Tying the film's many elements together - narratively and metaphorically - is Riggs' own story of alienation as a gay, black man with AIDS. Wan and thin, tied to machines, IVs sticking from his arm, Riggs deteriorates in front of our eyes. Yet he continues to direct the film from his hospital bed as part of his quest for meaning and self-definition in the face of his impending death. In a reappearing motif, we see Riggs running naked, vulnerable, lost in the woods, yearning to break free of confining notions of identity into an open, inclusive embrace of all that black is. Riggs argues that rather than having one fixed and never-changing identity, each of us inhabits many identities and many communities and that we can move back and forth between them. Like gumbo, black communities are made up of many contrasting ingredients. Savoring this rich, variegated and ever-changing infusion, Riggs asks us to reject the idea of a single model of blackness and accept and value black America as an inclusive, dynamic, and improvisatory world.
One thing more: Riggs asks, "If people is like gumbo, then what is the roux, that special ingredient that binds and gives everything its unique flavor?" Riggs refuses to tell us; he keeps his recipe for roux secret. Instead of offering quick and easy solutions, Black Is...Black Ain't contructs and enacts multiple and often contradictory positions. In so doing, the film places the viewer in the middle of a shifting, complex, and above all, rich world of blackness in the late twentieth century. From this vantage point, the viewer is encouraged to experience the many ways in which black is...and black ain't and begin a dialogue long overdue, one which will allow each of us the freedom to pursue our own special recipe for self-definition.