Marlon T. Riggs’ “Black Is…Black Ain’t” opens with a black figure—it is unclear weather a man or a woman and no facial features are distinguishable—tottering through green branches. This unnamed, un-sexed, un-faced figure makes its way towards the camera, crunching crisp leaves underfoot, stinging the air as the space between the figure and the camera diminishes. This opening ends with Riggs’ face coming into focus, but only briefly, for the film cuts to Riggs again (we have seen his face, albeit quickly so we can identify him as the same man in the woods), but this time fully clad and in a position of authority—a concerned authority—asking young people “has anyone talked to you at all about what you are doing? You just got dragged here (some of teenagers quizzically and critically assent while Riggs laughs)? Let me tell you a little bit about what we are doing. This is a documentary for television and its called ‘Black Is…Black Ain’t.’” This shot lasts no more then fifteen seconds before the camera’s object of inquiry changes yet again to the cold and septic hospital floor with a fade-in of production materials, cameras and the black-and-white clip board that signals filming and scene-takes with numbers in red flashing and changing as time progresses.
Riggs’ voice in the background, nondiegeticly introduced as an overlaid, and authoritative track to the world of the film (however, even his authoritative voiceover is ambiguously positioned as the scenes prior established Riggs as a subject, as well as documentary authority) riffs off of the red numbers, thinking through the temporality of finally starting production (red letters in the background heightening the time constricted element of production), his white blood cell count and his weight, while white numbers embodying his thoughts flash on the screen. Even with the certainty that numbers are supposed to bring to “a production finally started” and the monitoring of his health, Riggs speaks of disorientation, an uncertainty as to what is happening to him: “what is happening to my body?” Riggs does not leave this question hanging as it is central to his method and intervention; it is immediately answered: “AIDS forces you to…because of the likelihood that you could die at this moment…AIDS forces you to deal with that; to look around you and say ‘hey I am wasting my time if I am not devoting every moment to thinking about how to communicate to Black people so that we start to look at each other, we start to see each other.’” Nondiegetic voices, in unison but with different tonalities, rhythmically chant the title “Black Is…Black Aint” in the background against a black backdrop, which white letters swiftly mark: “During the making of this film, [Riggs] died of AIDS. This film was completed in tribute to his vision and humanity.”
The documentary’s powerful opening takes no more then a minute and twenty seconds, but in that minute and twenty seconds, Riggs establishes his methods of intervention and through these methods, Riggs asserts the function/purpose of his documentary, a purpose that also clearly indicates his audience. Riggs wants Black people to see each other, to engage with one another as authentically and compassionately as possible; Riggs implies life, existence, is time sensitive, and man is bound by the finitudes of our own human and bodily vulnerabilities and frailties, making man diffusely and infinitely different yet impenetrably bound by the finitude of time as death.
Riggs’ methods of intervention organically bleed into one and other; they are porous. While the different documentary modes Riggs invokes are distinct in terms of style and theoretic, they feed into and through one and another creating a lyrically raw, yet coherent theoretical argument about identity’s performance, and positionality as constricted by finitudes such as time, pain, and death. Riggs’ initial movements through the foliage, naked and initially unidentifiable, performatively engages with an abstract idea; Riggs performs another, the larger Black publics’ lost self in a complex world of identity and community; he also reenacts and, therefore, reengages historical, social, cultural memories and myths of the Black man in all of their possible valiances.
The final moments in the foliage that brings Riggs’ face into focus complicates Riggs’ method adding reflexive, participatory, autobiographical, and poetic elements to the theoretic structure. Riggs’ naked and simple state—what an audience could infer as performatively primitive, in its anthropological, and ethnographic implications—followed quickly by the shot of him as an empowered documentary director complicates what Broderick Fox articulates as the “inherent gap or power imbalance between subject and practitioner” (101). Riggs becomes both the subject of a performed observational moment and the reflexive, self aware documentary maker who places himself on screen speaking with and educating his subjects as to the documentary they are about to be a part of. This scene could have easily been cut, and these subjects could have been interviewed or filmed by an invisible documentary producer; rather, Riggs establishes himself not as a “disembodied narrator and invisible producer” (Fox, 232), but instead the performed powerless subject at the beginning, and later as the subject in the process of making a documentary. Importantly, the other subjects Riggs engages during this early reflexive moment are Black youth, a potentially marginalized, disempowered citizenry who are vulnerable to power structures and the parasitic popular news media gaze.
Not only does Riggs expose his positionality within the construction of this video but he also “emphasizes the relationship between producer and subject; Riggs “is seen and heard, his identity is established. The subject is invited into dialogue with the producer and has some agency in shaping the course of the project; thus if the power imbalance is not eliminated, this mode at least calls attention to it and the subjective positioning of the maker” (Fox 233). Further shrinking the space between subject and producer, Riggs, in this very short one minute and twenty second opening, turns to the autobiographical mode by once again establishing himself squarely as the subject. This time Riggs is not the performed unnamed and vulnerable to erasure anthropological ethnographic primitive, nor is he the participatory and reflexive producer, but rather, Riggs is the vulnerable scared patient with AIDS who is also a director reminded constantly of the finite nature of time; his work is constrained by the looming realties of illness and death.
An important thematic yokes these seemingly episodic moments, and this yoking occurs most effectively through Riggs’s theoretically poetic structure, as his documentary “emphasizes texture, rhythm, evocation, and formal experimentation over conceits of objectivity and realism” (Fox 233). “Black Is…Black Ain’t’s” opening posits the inconsistent, fractured, obfuscated and self-dissimulating nature of black identity in the Untied States’ cultural historical context. Riggs evokes Black folks’ multiple identities through the constructed symbolic entrance of Riggs as the larger Black community’s search for identity, his own attempt at making that identity in a documentary, and his embodied and lived experience as a gay man with AIDS searching to open up a space for his identity, refiguring and giving texture to the attempted erasure of homosexuality within the Black heterosexual male centered community. Ultimately, Riggs argues not for a unified Black identity, but rather the need to embrace and surrender to the counterintuitive multiplicity of man’s finitudes.