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Black Is ... Black Ain't

by Cliff Thompson

Cineaste, v22, n4 (Fall, 1996):55 (2 pages).

COPYRIGHT Cineaste Publishers Inc. 1996. Used in the UCB Media Resources Web site with permission.

Toward the end of the documentary Black Is...Black Ain't, after an interviewer asks the AIDS-stricken filmmaker and writer Marlon Riggs what he has dreamt about lately, Riggs replies that he has not experienced dreams so much as a series of flashing images that he likens to MTV. The same description could almost be applied to Black Is...Black Ain't, which moves quickly, sometimes unannouncedly, from one subtopic to another in pursuit of its overarching theme: the validation of every form of black experience. Remarkably, the result is not a chaotic patchwork but a seamless whole, one that thoughtfully addresses many key issues involving blackness and is all the more impressive for doing so in a mere eighty- seven minutes.

Riggs's previous work includes the acclaimed documentaries Tongues Untied (1989), about the internal conflicts and ostracism he faced as a gay black man, and Color Adjustment (1992), an examination of images of blacks seen on television over the decades. Completed after his death in 1994, at the age of 37, Black Is...Black Ain't merges many of the concerns of those two works. His final film also operates as a kind of last will and testament: he bequeaths the idea that rigid notions of what is or is not black behavior, of who is or isn't black, need to be abandoned for the sake of strengthening the sense of community within the race; he also passes on his faith that this will occur. At various points throughout the film, the emaciated Riggs is shown in a hospital, and should anyone question the relevance of this footage to his overall message, he explains that both being black and having AIDS entail "a struggle against the odds in the face of adversity, in the face of possible extinction." No black person, the film suggests, should be excluded from the effort to stave off such extinction.

Early on, Black Is...Black Ain't looks at the negative connotations that were attached for so long to the very word 'black.' It recalls how black people's transcendence of those associations and their embrace of the word, rather than of the white-imposed terms 'Negro' or 'colored,' amounted to an act of self-empowerment. The film goes on to demonstrate that black self-definition has the capacity to imprison as well as to liberate. On hand to help blast away counterproductive definitions of blackness are thinkers and activists such as Angela Davis, Cornel West, bell hooks, and Michele Wallace, as well as a number of less famous but thoughtful commentators. This group reminds us that because slavery and its aftermath involved the emasculation-physical as well as psychological - of black men, the drive for black power was usually taken to mean a call for black male power, despite the needs of (and often with the complicity of) black women. That continues to result in the devaluing of black female contributions to the liberation struggle and in the subordination of black women in general. Michele Wallace observes that attacking black male sexism is the "job that no one wants to do" and that those, including her, who attempt to do so are punished for it, to the detriment of everyone involved. As bell hooks memorably puts it: "If the black thing is really a dick thing in disguise, we're in serious trouble."

Cornel West laments the fact that black masculinity is not associated with being emotionally demonstrative and that it is thus "difficult to be a black male and be in touch with your humanity." And narrow ideas about what constitutes male behavior are harmful in other ways, as well. The often-cited disdain for gay men in the black community, according to the film, exists because many see homosexuality as a concession to centuries of emasculation - as a "final break" with masculinity.

On a related note, Black Is...Black Ain't pays homage to the key role of black churches in the liberation struggle, while pointing out those churches' rejection of homosexuality. Included in the film, however, are interviews with black lesbians who have found acceptance in a church that, contrary to common practice, opens its arms to homosexuals.

The film attacks rigid notions of blackness that concern appearance. "Why is there still so much commotion when we add a few salt-lookin' people to the stew?," one dark-skinned black woman wants to know. "Black folk been lookin' like white folk since the first traveler from Europe bred with the first African woman he encountered....And since nobody is racially pure around here, what sense does it make for us to split hairs and genes trying to figure out who's got the true black blood?"

Counterbalanced with now-obligatory footage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and their aftermath are interviews with forward-looking street kids. Although they still admit to running with gangs, these kids recognize the value of education - which they still hope to attain - and regret that they weren't set straight on this score earlier in life. Their words fly in the face of the notion that blackness equals a disdain for learning.

So, if blackness does not mean being male, sexist, and out of touch with one's emotions; if it doesn't mean being heterosexual; if it doesn't mean being an impoverished small-time criminal; if it doesn't even mean having dark skin and kinky hair, then what, in the view of this sometimes funny, often moving, always provocative documentary, does it mean? Angela Davis provides one answer: "You take some color, a dash or a big dollop, it don't matter, and you blend it with an assortment of physical features that reflect every face you might possibly encounter on this great earth, mix that up with a culture that just loves to improvise, signify, reclaim, renew, and read - and you've got, the recipe, for black folk." Works for me.

Cliff Thompson is an editor and free-lance writer living in Brooklyn.

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