The Signifyin' Works of Marlon Riggs
There has never been a filmmaker like Marlon Riggs (1957–1994): an unapologetic gay Black man who defied a culture of silence and shame to speak his truth with resounding joy and conviction. An early adopter of video technology who had a profound understanding of the power of words and images to effect change, Riggs employed a bold mix of documentary, performance, poetry, music, and experimental techniques in order to confront issues that most of Reagan-era America refused to acknowledge, from the devastating legacy of racist stereotypes to the impact of the AIDS crisis on his own queer African American community to the very definition of what it is to be Black. Bringing together Riggs’s complete works—including his controversy-inciting queer landmark Tongues Untied and Black Is . . . Black Ain’t, his deeply personal career summation—The Signifyin’ Works of Marlon Riggs traces the artistic and political evolution of a transformative filmmaker whose work is both an electrifying call for liberation and an invaluable historical document.
For their latest director-centric release, The Signifyin’ Works of Marlon Riggs, Criterion presents seven of Riggs’ films over two dual-layer discs: Ethnic Notions; Tongues Untied; Affirmations; Anthem; Color Adjustment; Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regret); and Black Is… Black Ain’t. All of the films were shot (or mostly shot) and completed on video, and those finished videos are the source for all of the presentations, Criterion delivering each on in the ratio of 1.33:1 with a 1080i/60hz high-definition encode. The first four films are presented on the first disc, the three latter films on the second.
Despite the video sources I have to say these all look unusually good. Yes, they still have that noisy, ringing analog look a lot of the time, and they’ll never be confused for high-def presentations, but Criterion has gone to quite a bit of trouble to clean them all up. The noise levels have been toned down, which can lead to a level of detail that can be surprising, for the source format at least. Colours have been adjusted a bit, and there can be an amazing vibrancy to them at times, and black levels look great, managing to come off rich and inky in a way I’ve never seen from a video source.
Though the image still shows interlacing along with some aliasing effects and jagged edges, these artifacts all end up being a minor intrusion that can be easily overlooked (though they can get a little heavier with some layering and video-editing effects). Criterion has also stabilized the image to remove the expected jittering that can come from video, and there are no tracking issues to speak of. Some footage in Tongues Untied and a couple of other films show some wear on the sides, a sort of discoloration, but that’s about the worst of it when it comes to the condition of the source. Some of the films (primarily Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment) make use of archival footage, and this footage does show damage and discoloration at times, but this would have been all inherent in the footage Riggs was using.
No, it’s not super-clean, it’s still noisy, and at best it looks like really good video tape, but I think Criterion has done a spectacular job translating these films over to high-definition. For what these are, they look far better than I would have expected.
Affirmations and Anthem both come with lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtracks while the other films all come with lossless PCM stereo soundtracks. All of the soundtracks manage to sound clear and clean, even where the audio is coming from uncontrolled settings. The audio is sharp and clear with a decent level of fidelity. The stereo soundtracks, particularly for Tongues Untied through Anthem and then Black Is… Black Ain’t, offer more aggressive mixes, taking full advantage of the stereo soundstage by throwing in various effects that move cleanly between the two speakers, often in jarring (yet effective) ways. They all sound quite good.
Criterion spreads a number of features across the two discs, though disappointingly, there isn't much specific to the individual films. Of the material specific to the films, Criterion does include a couple of one-minute introductions featuring Marlon Riggs, recorded in 1991 and 1992: one for Tongues Untied and another for Color Adjustment, both of which played alongside airings of the respective films on a public access program called POV. For Tongues Untied he explains the decision around placing himself in the film (something he was very resistant to initially) and for Color Adjustment he addresses the film’s subject matter and recalls how he initially reacted positively to the programs the film examines. Also film-specific (and found on the second disc) is a newly recorded discussion between media scholar Racquel Gates and sociologist Herman Gray covering Riggs’ documentaries Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment, Gray having appeared as an interview subject in the latter film. The two talk about the subject matter of both films, which both deal with the history of black representation in America, the latter film focusing on television, and then how Riggs approached the specific subjects before offering interpretations on what the filmmaker was trying to say in the end. This also leads into conversations about the editing of his films, how he links his topics, and even discussion around their admiration in how he could ask the right questions of his subjects. The conversation, conducted remotely, is engaging and thorough, even working as a great addendum to the films themselves, especially since they talk a bit about black representation in modern programming.
The rest of the content provided by Criterion offers a more general look at the life and work of Riggs, filling in the gaps the films themselves end up leaving. Opening the first disc is a 23-minute introduction featuring curator Ashley Clark, filmmaker and friend of Riggs, Vivian Kleiman, and filmmaker Shikeith, all of whom participate remotely. Clark talks a little about the importance of Riggs’ work but is here more as a moderator, asking questions of the two other participants. Shikeith covers how he first discovered Riggs’ films, coming across Tongues Untied while making his own film about the gay/black experience with #Blackmendream. Kleiman knew Riggs personally so has more to share on a personal level, while also talking about his technique and style, calling his editing “gumbo editing” because of how he was able to make all of the different material he shoot or collect work together in the end. She also recalls how his AIDS diagnosis pushed him to get his message out.
Kleiman’s contribution offers a nice personal aspect, as does a segment entitled A Kindred Spirit, featuring interviews with Brian Freeman, Reginald T. Jackson, and Bill T. Jones, all of whom appeared or performed in Riggs’ films. Here they share stories about how the came to meet Riggs and how they came to appear in his films, or, in the case of Jackson and Affirmations, how Riggs could take their own story and build a film from that. They then share how Riggs has influenced them in their own work since. The piece runs about 20-minutes.
That influence is then carried on into the feature The Everlasting Influence of Marlon Riggs with poet Jericho Brown and filmmakers Cheryl Dunye and Rodney Evans. Dunye got to see Riggs at work and she talks about watching his process and his handle on the technical aspects of filmmaking, along with how he showed her the various avenues one can go down for funding to get their films made. Both Evans and Brown share their first experiences with Riggs’ films and how it has influenced their work, Brown even sharing one of his poems directly influenced by Riggs’ work, “After Essex Hemphill.” It’s a very passionate feature thanks to the three (all recorded separately and remotely), but it’s most illuminating aspect is how these three were able to find their own voice thanks to discovering the work of someone similar who had come before.
Focusing more on the technical aspects of his work, Criterion has also included a new interview with editor Christiane Badgley, who covers how she came to work with Riggs on a few of the films (he was her teacher and was impressed with her editing on her thesis project) and explains Riggs’ thought process in editing his films. She also recalls some of the more stressful moments, with Black Is… Black Ain’t being the most stressful due to his failing health.
Criterion also digs up an archival interview from 1992 with Riggs, running 11-minutes and featuring the filmmaker talking about the themes of his films, how others try to pigeonhole him as a filmmaker, and touches on the Pat Buchanan political ad that used his film Tongues Untied as an example in how government money is wasted on “filth” (that ad can be seen in the Clark/Kleiman/Shikeith introduction). The set then includes a couple of bonus films. The first disc presents Riggs’ 28-minute student film (made with fellow student Peter Webster) about the Oakland Blues scene called Long Train Running. It’s a more along the lines of what you would expect from a journalistic documentary (fitting his journalistic education), less experimental compared to his later work, even the documentaries Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment, but it’s a well-made, engaging film on its subject. Like his other films it too is sourced from video. The second disc then includes the 1996 59-minute documentary by Karen Everett, I Shall Not Be Removed: The Life of Marlon Riggs. It is a straight-forward biography of the director, covering his life from childhood to his untimely death at 37 along with all of the milestones and his work in-between, but it feels very personal and manages to get some great interviews with those that knew him, including with Riggs’ grandmother and mother. It even digs up great material featuring Riggs himself. From all of it you get a hint as to the events that shaped his life and his work, making for one of the strongest supplements on here.
The two discs are then presented in a sharp looking digipak with a booklet. The booklet includes an overview of each film in the set followed by a lengthy and in-depth essay on Riggs, his work and themes, written by K. Austin Collins.
Each of the films get coverage throughout the features get coverage and mention, but I would have expected more material specific to some of the other films in the set, not just Ethnic Notions and Color Adjustment; Tongues Untied at least. I was also surprised at the lack of specific features around a couple of subjects, like Essex Hemphill (to be fair, he gets mentioned a lot throughout the features, along with author Joseph Beam). Despite those obvious gaps, Criterion's set still manages to do an incredible job covering Riggs’ work and life, along with the impact his work has had on others. It’s a lovingly assembled package.
Criterion makes Marlon Riggs’ work more widely available through their lovingly assembled package, which delivers some strong presentations despite the limitations of the source materials, and an excellent set of supplements.