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Opinion: What we can learn about masculinity from a black gay man in America

Marlon Riggs with camera

It’s been a long, hot summer for uncomfortable questions about masculinity---at least in my news and pop culture consumption it has.

The George Zimmerman trial and its outcome have author James Baldwin’s words pinging around my brain: “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” 

I came out of a screening of seeing the feature film Fruitvale Station along with other audience members---a racially diverse crowd---stunned into silence at its depiction of the 2009 murder of Oscar Grant by a transit cop in Oakland, CA.

Hearing the voices of boys and men in Dustin Dwyer’s State of Opportunity documentary “Be A Man” adds to my conviction that the problem with masculinity is that we don’t talk nearly enough about the very basic question of gender as a social role and not biological fact. The stories of two men featured in the documentary, Dramaad Cartman and Dan Hombeck, illustrate how they had to learn what society expected of them as men, and sometimes resist having those roles imposed on them.

This merging of real world news and dramatizations of real world news made me think about the films of Marlon Riggs. No one’s creative work has done more to push me to think about how masculinity is a set of roles more than his films, including Tongues Untied, Black Is...Black Ain’t, and Ethnic Notions.

Riggs’ name may be familiar because his film Tongues Untied was a flashpoint in the 1990s Culture Wars over what constitutes obscenity in the arts. Riggs’ film depicting black gay life in the U.S., indeed with some nudity, was deemed an inappropriate recipient of government funds. Some PBS affiliates even refused to broadcast it.

In his films Riggs did something unique when it came to questioning identity. He pushed his audiences to question how people discriminate against people who are different from them, as well as people who are like them. A good example would be the continued discussion of “colorism” within black communities: are light-skinned blacks somehow “better than” dark-skinned blacks? Where did such an idea come from when there’s plenty for blacks to worry about with “regular” racism?

In a film critical of racial and gender stereotypes in television, Ethnic Notions (1987), Riggs goes as far back as Amos & Andy in the 1950s, Julia and I Spy in the 1960s, and on through the 1980s The Cosby Show. Riggs asks, what is the impact of representing African-Americans only in a positive light? What did it mean for Americans to assume that all black people were either like Will or Carlton on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Aire with very little variability between those two characters? Riggs wanted us to think about how stereotypes on TV impact our stereotypes about the people we meet on the street. Are negative stereotypes just as harmful as positive ones if they keep us from seeing that people are more complex than what we see in a 22-minute sitcom?

A later film, Black Is…Black Ain’t (1994) was both a direct confrontation and love letter to African-Americans. What is “authentically” black? Way before President Obama’s arrival on the political scene, Riggs’ anticipated the question of who is “black enough.” This idea that one can measure blackness is a time-worn standard that acts as an invisible dividing line: are you a house slave or a field slave? A respectable black person or a “ ‘hood rat?” Black Is, Black Ain’t was the first post-civil rights era, post-soul creative production to propose that there are as many ways of being black as there are black people.

Riggs confused many onlookers because he was not what society dictated he should be. Harvard educated, Berkeley-trained filmmaker, and later a tenured professor, Riggs had the audacity to ask questions about the boxes we put one another---the boxes we put ourselves---in. It’s Riggs work that springs to mind when listening to Rodrick Daniels, who strives to be a God-fearing family man and mentor, despite societal ideas about a black man with a criminal record and time successfully served. The way that Riggs constantly picked at the blanket of authenticity people wrap around themselves for protection, is evident in the voice of young Mario, who wants to steer clear of gangs despite peer expectations that he be “one of us.”

Without Marlon Riggs there would be no Code Switch. Without Marlon Riggs there wouldn’t be a politically progressive wing of the LGBTQ movement with an active anti-racist agenda. Without Riggs’ film Black Is…Black Ain’t, which challenged African-Americans on a politics of inclusion and exclusion, there would be no Race Card Project.

And without Riggs’ body of work, we might not even be asking questions about what it means to be a father, son, husband, friend, or man in America today. With a month of summer left to go I get the feeling that we’re nowhere near finished having tough conversations about race and gender that will challenge our preconceptions and misperceptions of manhood.

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