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Marlon Riggs Papers, 1957-1994 M1759
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Collection Details
Table of contents What's This?
  • Access to Collection
  • Preferred Citation
  • Arrangement Note
  • Processing Information Note
  • Publication Rights
  • Scope and Contents
  • Filmography
  • Biography

  • Title: Marlon Riggs Papers
    Identifier/Call Number: M1759
    Contributing Institution: Department of Special Collections and University Archives
    Language of Material: English
    Physical Description: 112.0 Linear feet (37 manuscript boxes, 5 half-boxes, 3 card boxes, 34 flat boxes, 28 cartons, 1 oversize box)
    Date (inclusive): 1957-1994
    Abstract: This collection documents the life and career of the documentary director, Marlon Troy Riggs, 1957-1994. The majority of the materials in the Collection are from the period between 1984 and Riggs' death in 1994, the decade of his concentrated film-making activity, as well as some more personal materials from the late 1970s onwards. The papers include correspondence, manuscripts, subject files, teaching files, project files, research, photographs, audiovisual materials, personal and biographical materials created and compiled by Riggs.
    General Physical Description note: Audio/Visual material housed in 90 cartons containing: 16 Film reels, 149 VHS videotapes, 437 Umatic videotapes, 602 Betacam videotapes, 50 Digibeta videotapes, I Betamax videotape, 1 D8 tape, 6 micro cassette tapes, 2 DARS tapes, 14 Hi-8 tapes, 10 DAT tapes, 8 reels 2inch video, 27 reels 1inch video, 49 DVDs, 108 audio cassettes, 48 audio reels, 2 compact discs; Computer Media: 1 floppy disc 8inch, 171 floppy discs 5.25inch, 190 3.5-inch floppy discs, and papers housed in 77 boxes, 62 flat boxes, and 11 half boxes.
    Creator: Riggs, Marlon.

    Access to Collection

    Open for research; material must be requested at least 36 hours in advance of intended use. There are restricted materials in series 3 subseries 5. Audio-visual materials are not available in original format, and must be reformatted to a digital use copy for research viewing on campus only. Some audio visual materials have a digital copy, details available in the reading room. As per legal agreement, copies of audio-visual material are only available in the Special Collections reading room unless explicit written permission from the copyright holder is obtained. Born-Digital materials closed until processed.

    Preferred Citation

    [identification of item], Marlon Riggs Collection, M1759. Dept. of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, Calif.

    Arrangement Note

    Marlon was a very organized individual, due to his training as a journalist and as a documentary film maker and subsequently his paper files were found to be in a prearranged condition, divided into film projects and presented in an orderly manner. Consequently, it has been decided to keep this arrangement, as much as possible, in order to present the systematical layout of his paperwork collection, as well as to show his methodical thinking. This application of keeping the original order of the collection also applies to his videotapes, which were numbered within each project according to the type of element used in the production, and the original numbers have been kept, and supplemented with numbers where tapes were unnumbered. Each film project has its own subseries within the Audio Visual Series, and tapes are numbered accordingly within each project.
    The arrangement of the collection is as follows: Series 1: Project Files, Series 2: Audio Visual, Series 3: Other Papers, Series 4. Born-Digital Materials.
    Series 1 has been further split into 9 subseries consisting of papers relating to film projects, in chronological order: Subseries 1: Long Train Running, Subseries 2: Ethnic Notions, Subseries 3: Tongues Untied, Subseries 4: Affirmations, Subseries 5: Color Adjustment, Subseries 6: No Regrets, Subseries 7: Anthem, Subseries 8 - Black Is…Black Ain’t, Subseries 9: Other items
    Series 2 has been further split into 9 subseries consisting of film projects in chronological order: Subseries 1: Long Train Running, Subseries 2: Ethnic Notions, Subseries 3: Tongues Untied, Subseries 4: Affirmations, Subseries 5: Color Adjustment, Subseries 6: No Regrets, Subseries 7: Anthem Subseries, 8 - Black Is…Black Ain’t, Subseries 9: Other items
    Series 3 has been further split into 5 subseries consisting of: Subseries 1: Paper materials relating to Research materials, Subseries 2: Papers relating to Writings (either about Riggs or by Riggs), includes Journalism papers, Subseries 3: Paper materials relating to business correspondence, Subseries 4 - Paper materials relating to personal correspondence such as letters, cards, notebooks and diaries, Subseries 5 - Paper materials relating to financial matters, both business and personal
    Series 4. Born-Digital Materials is CLOSED UNTIL PROCESSED.

    Processing Information Note

    This collection was processed by Lydia Pappas in 2011. Audio-visual materials were reformatted in 2011 by Stanford Digital Preservation Department; born-digital materials will be closed until processed.

    Publication Rights

    All requests to reproduce, publish, quote from, or otherwise use collection materials must be submitted in writing to the Head of Special Collections and University Archives, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford, California 94304-6064. Consent is given on behalf of Special Collections as the owner of the physical items and is not intended to include or imply permission from the copyright owner. Such permission must be obtained from the copyright owner, heir(s) or assigns. See: http://library.stanford.edu/depts/spc/pubserv/permissions.html.
    Restrictions also apply to digital representations of the original materials. Use of digital files is restricted to research and educational purposes.

    Scope and Contents

    The Marlon Riggs Collection documents the life and career of the documentary director, Marlon Troy Riggs, 1957-1994. Most of the materials in the Collection are from the period between 1984 and Riggs' death in 1994, the decade of his concentrated film-making activity, as well as some more personal materials from the late 1970s onwards.
    The Riggs collection was acquired by Stanford University in 2010 from the trustees of Signifyin Works, the production company Marlon set up with Vivian Kleiman in 1991. The collection consisted of over 100 legal sized boxes and 30 media containers. Half a dozen boxes were added from the personal collection of Jack Vincent, Marlon’s life partner, in August 2011. Processing of the collection began in May 2011 and finished in December 2011, culminating with the rehousing of all the materials into approximately 250 boxes of varying sizes, with distinct elements housed together.
    The audio visual materials relate directly to his video projects made either through MTR Productions or Signifyin Works, and are made up of various elements including research material, television shows, archival footage, original footage and interviews shot by his production team, as well as the components of his production assembly such as rough and fine cuts, graphic and musical elements. The paper materials consist of both work related and personal documents and files dating from 1976 through to 1995 and are made up of a variety of items from personal correspondence such as cards and letters, newspapers, newsletters and research articles, financial papers, paperwork directly relating to his video projects, and papers from his journalism days at UCB, both studying and teaching.


    Long Train Running: The Story of the Oakland Blues, 1981. (Co-producer, director and editor) Summary: Documentary about the history of blues music in Oakland following the migration of black people to the East Bay area following WWII. Produced as a graduate thesis for UC Berkeley. Awards: American Film Institute National Video Festival Documentary Division First Prize, Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Student Television awards Documentary Second Prize
    How much is enough? Decision Making in the Nuclear Age, 1982. PBS "Crisis to Crisis Series" (Associate Editor)
    A Traveling Jewish Theatre, 1983 (Editor)
    Fighting Ministers, 1983. (Assistant Editor) Summary: A program about a group of Ministers who protest the closing of the Pittsburgh steel mills. Broadcast nationally on PBS, 1983.
    The First Fifty Years: Reflections on U.S./Soviet Relations, 1984. (associate Editor) Summary: A television special documenting the history of U.S. -Soviet relations through Soviet and American footage and interviews with key Americans such as Richard Nixon. Broadcast nationally on PBS in 1984. Winner of the duPont-Columbia Silver Baton, 1985.
    Faces of War (Faces of the Enemy), 1986. (Associate Editor) Summary: A one-hour special for PBS examining how thoughts and images of the enemy lead to violence and war. Broadcast nationally on PBS, May 1987. National Emmy Nomination, 1987
    Changing Images: Mirrors of Life, Molds of Reality, 1987. (Producer, director, editor and writer)
    Ethnic Notions, 1987. (Producer, director, and writer) Summary: Riggs' first solo professional feature documentary, this film traces the evolution of black caricature and stereotypes of black people in American popular culture of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. With a narrative voice-over provided by Esther Rolle, the film interweaves film footage, cartoons, music, dance, theatre and stills of historical images to expose the racism of the era immediately following the Civil War. The documentary presents a set of contemporary interviews with historians George Fredrickson, Pat Turner and Larry Levine, cultural critic Barbara Christian, and others, who discuss the consequences of historical African-American stereotypes. Awards: Winner of the Individual Craft Award of Outstanding Achievement in Research in the national news and documentary category, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, First Prize in the Black American Cinema Society Independent Filmmaker awards, Best Documentary in the San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Awards, First prize in the U.S. History Category of the National Educational Film and Video Festival. Newark Black Film Festival Award, Red Ribbon Award from the American Film and Video Festival, and the Chicago International Film Festival Award, 1987. National Educational Film and Video Festival Gold Apple Award, 1987.
    Open Window: Innovations from the University of California, 1988. (director and writer)
    Visions toward Tomorrow: Black Californians From the Gold Rush to the Present, 1989. (Director, producer, writer, and editor)
    Tongues Untied, 1989. (Producer, director, and writer) Summary: In this autobiographical film Riggs uses a narrative structure to tell of his own experiences, blending documentary footage with personal accounts and fiction in an attempt to depict black gay identity. The "silence" referred to throughout the film is that of the black gay man, who not only faces prejudices from white and black heterosexual society, but also from the white gay movement. Awards: Winner of the Blue ribbon in the American Film and Video Festival, Best Video in the New York Documentary Festival, Best Experimental Video in the San Francisco International Film and Video Festival, Berlin International Film Festival Teddy Award for Best Documentary Film Award, Los Angeles Film Critics Association Independent/Experimental Film or Video Award, National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Individual Craft Award for Outstanding Achievement in Research, Outstanding merit award and best experimental video, both from Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, Wellington Film festival award to Tongues Untied, Certificate of Merit from the Big Muddy Film Festival, D.C. International Film Festival, Cleveland International Film Festival award and Special Jury Award of the USA Film Festival, Dallas. National Educational Film and Video Festival Gold Apple Award, 1990.
    Affirmations, 1990. (Producer and director) Summary: This film is made from the outtakes of "Tongues Untied", and includes a coming-out story of black gay writer Reginald T. Jackson, and further develops Riggs' critique of homophobia originally expressed in Tongues Untied.
    Color Adjustment, 1991. (producer, director, and writer) Summary: Riggs's follow-up to Ethnic Notions, focusing on images of black people in American television from the mid-1940s through the 1980s and scrutinizing television's racial myths and stereotypes. Narrated by African-American actress Ruby Dee and using contemporary interviews of television actors, directors, producers, and cultural commentators, the documentary conveys personal reflections and academic analyses of such television programs as Amos 'n' Andy, Beulah, The Nat King Cole Show, Julia, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, Good Times, Roots, The Cosby Show and others. Riggs portrays a history of the race conflict as reflected in television, tracing 40 years of race relations through the lens of prime time entertainment. Awards: Winner of the 1992 Erik Barnouw Award from the Organization of American Historians, The International Documentary Association's Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award, American Film Institute Independent Film and Video Artists Award, 1992, George Foster Peabody Award, nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. Worldfest Houston Gold Special Jury Award,1992. Chicago International Film Festival Award, 1991. National Educational Film and Video Festival Best of Festival, 1992. Sydney Film festival certificate of screening, Jerusalem Film festival award and Cleveland Film Festival certificate of participation, 1992.
    No Regrets, 1992. (producer and director) Summary: In the film [Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regret)], five gay Black men, who are HIV-positive, discuss how they are battling the double stigmas surrounding their infection and homosexuality. It was commissioned as part of a series of documentaries on the AIDS crisis. Awards: Winner of the Juror's Choice at the Black Maria Film and Video Festival, Best "Black Experience" Film/Video at the 8th Annual Black International Cinema Festival, Honorable Mention and Best Cultural Affairs Documentary by the National Black Programming Consortium's Prized Pieces Festival.
    Anthem, 1993. (producer and director) Summary: This film is a short documentary about African-American male sexuality, shown as a collage of images of black men, using hip-hop music, fast editing techniques and graphics in the style of a music video. Awards: The Brooklyn Arts Council Award Certificate
    Black Is...Black Ain't, 1994. (producer, director, and writer) Summary: This film, using the analogy of Gumbo as a metaphor for the rich diversity of Black identities, tells the story of the African American experience, through the many images of black people of themselves. Riggs mixes performances by choreographer Bill T. Jones and poet Essex Hemphill, with commentary by noted cultural critics Angela Davis, Bell Hooks, Cornel West, Michele Wallace, and Barbara Smith to explore the lives, histories, and stereotypes surrounding African American culture and people. Riggs' own urgent quest for self-definition and community ties the multiple perspectives together. Speaking from his hospital bed, Riggs takes strength for his struggle against AIDS from the continual resilience of African Americans in the face of oppression. Awards: Winner of the Filmmaker's Trophy in Documentary, nominated for the Grand Jury prize at Sundance Film Festival, 1995. Winner of the Golden Gate Award for the Bay Area Documentary Film & Video at the San Francisco International Film festival, 1995. Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame, Best Film Overall award and First Place Documentary section award, 1995


    Marlon Troy Riggs was born in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1957. Riggs lived in Fort Worth, Texas, until the age of 11, when his family moved to Georgia and then to West Germany. He returned to the United States in 1974 to attend Harvard University, where he studied history and graduated, with honors, in 1978. Riggs returned to Texas to work in television but left in 1980 to pursue a master's degree in journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1981. His graduate thesis entitled Long Train Running, produced and co-directed with fellow student Peter Webster, was a half-hour video on the history of the blues in Oakland, California.
    Upon finishing graduate school, Riggs honed his skills as a filmmaker by assisting documentary directors and producers, working as associate editor on works made for public television. By the time he began producing his own works in 1985, he had many films to his credit, including short documentaries on the American arms race, Nicaragua, Central America, sexism, and disability rights. Having already established a name amongst producers and technicians in documentary film in the San Francisco Bay area, Riggs continued to build on that reputation as he produced, directed, and wrote his own films. In 1987, Riggs was hired as a part-time faculty member at the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley to teach documentary filmmaking. He became a tenured professor at Berkeley shortly thereafter and spent the rest of his working life in the Oakland area.
    In 1989 he completed his own film, Ethnic Notions, a documentary concerning the pervasive stereotypes of African Americans in advertising, literature and popular culture. In the film, Riggs traces the history of stereotypes from slavery to the present, presenting the ways by which centuries-old attitudes about African Americans informed contemporary racism. Although Ethnic Notions is a challenging look at the images that have been used in American culture to reinforce racism, it was received with respect by all audiences alike and won a series of prestigious awards, including the Individual Craft Award of Outstanding Achievement in Research in the national news and documentary category from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.
    However, it was his second major documentary, Tongues Untied, which established Riggs as a controversial figure, pushing him into the limelight in the debate over public funding of the arts. Tongues Untied, using a hybrid of experimental and documentary forms, showed scenes of fantasy, performance, personal testimonies, direct address, and autobiography to confront stereotypes and to convey an authentic and positive black gay identity. In order to demonstrate the harmful effects of silence on self-esteem, the film contrasts this image with negative representations of gay black men as caricatures and drag queens in contemporary American popular culture. The three principle voices of Tongues Untied are those of Riggs, as well as gay rights activists and HIV positive men, Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam.
    Though the film was well received by critics and the public, it was deemed controversial because of its frank depiction of racism and homophobia. This highly personal documentary was the first frank discussion of the black, gay experience on television and kept the film from being aired on most public television stations. The film was used, along with other federally funded art works, by conservative members of the United States Senate to attack the National Endowment for the Arts, which sparked a national debate about funding from the Federal government of the United States for artistic creations some consider obscene. Artists stressed their basic right of free speech and vehemently opposed censorship of their art. In the 1992 Republican presidential primaries, presidential candidate Buchanan released an anti-Bush television advertisement for his campaign using re-edited clips from Tongues United. The ad aired for several days throughout the United States but was quickly removed from television channels after Riggs accused Buchanan of copyright infringement.
    In 1989, while making Tongues Untied, Riggs tested positive for HIV but continued making films, despite the onset of complications from the infection. In 1991, Riggs produced the long-awaited sequel to Ethnic Notions, Color Adjustment, a documentary film that traces the evolution of the black image in television. Featuring clips from Amos 'n' Andy, Beulah, The Nat King Cole Show, Julia, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Son, Good Times, Roots, The Cosby Show and others, as well as newsreel footage from the 1960s Civil Rights years, Riggs portrays a history of the race conflict as reflected in television. Using contemporary interviews of television actors, directors, producers, and cultural commentators, the documentary conveys personal reflections and academic analyses of the use of race in television programs from the 1950s through to the 1980s. Color Adjustment was met with high critical praise, receiving a Peabody Award and being nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. In 1992 it was also aired as part of the P.O.V. series on PBS.
    In addition to his work as a documentary film-maker, Riggs also published both fiction and scholarly articles related to his academic work. The themes of his writings include filmmaking, free speech and censorship, and criticism of racism and homophobia and were published during the late 1980s and early 1990s in various art and literary journals.
    "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around." As a media activist, Riggs testified before Congress and wrote widely on issues of censorship and issues related to the control of intellectual property. He was also on the national policy committee of the PBS and served on panels of organizations such as the National Endowment for the Arts. In 1988 he spoke before a U.S. Senate Committee as part of the successful campaign to create the Independent Television Service (ITVS) supporting controversial, independent voices on public television.
    As well as his longer documentaries, Marlon created several short experimental videos including Affirmations, which included a coming-out story of black gay writer Reginald T. Jackson. In 1991, Riggs directed and produced Anthem, a short documentary about African-American male sexuality. Viewed as a take on music videos, the film includes a collage of erotic images of black men, hip-hop music, and a call to celebrate difference in sexuality.
    In 1992, Riggs directed the film Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regret), in which five gay Black men who are HIV-positive discuss how they are battling the double stigmas surrounding their infection and homosexuality. It was commissioned as part of a series of documentaries on the AIDS crisis called "Fear of Disclosure". In 1993, Riggs received an honorary doctorate degree from the California College of Arts and Crafts.
    Marlon Riggs' final film, Black Is...Black Ain't, is an example of the kind of television programming he struggled to support all his life. Hospitalized by kidney failure and other ailments, he continued to direct, even appearing on camera from his hospital bed, and the film took on a more personal tone as his illness progressed. While filming Riggs grew sicker but continued to write until kidney failure and other problems confined him to a hospital bed. Riggs succumbed to the complications of AIDS on April 5, 1994, before he could finish the film. His co-producer Nicole Atkinson and co-director Christiane Badgely used his notes as a guide to complete the film seven months after his death.
    In "Black Is...Black Ain't" Riggs commented from his hospital bed that "As long as I have work then I'm not going to die, cause work is a living spirit in me--that which wants to connect with other people and pass on something to them which they can use in their own lives and grow from." Ultimately, Riggs's work lives on, showing that his voice is stronger than his virus.

    Subjects and Indexing Terms

    Asante, Molefi K., 1942-
    Atkinson, Nicole
    Badgley, Christiane
    Beam, Joseph
    Black Gay Men United.
    Black Panther Party
    Black, Kerrigan
    Bochco, Steven
    Buchanan, Patrick J. (Patrick Joseph), 1938-
    California Newsreel (Firm).
    Carroll, Diahann
    Christian, Barbara, 1943-2000
    Corbitt, Wayne T.
    Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
    Cosby, Bill, 1937-
    Davis, Angela Y., (Angela Yvonne), 1944-
    Davis, Anthony, 1951- X
    Dee, Ruby
    Dellal, Jasmine
    Duckette, Larry
    Faulkner, Janette
    Frameline (Firm).
    Franti, Michael, 1968-
    Fredrickson, George M., 1934-2008
    Gates, Henry Louis
    Grey, Herman
    Hall, Stuart, 1932-
    Harris, Lyle Ashton, 1965-
    Hemphill, Essex
    Henry, Bob
    Hoffmann, Deborah
    Hooks, Bell
    Hurston, Zora Neale
    Jones, Bill T.
    Jones, Wayson
    Julien, Isaac
    Kanter, Hal
    Kleiman, Vivian
    KRON-TV (Television station : San Francisco, Calif.)
    Langley, Steve
    Lear, Norman
    Leonard, Sheldon, 1907-1997
    Levine, Larry.
    MacDonald, J. Fred
    Murphy, Eddie, 1961-
    Nicholas, Denise, 1944-
    Paltrow, Bruce
    Peters, Erskine
    Poussaint, Alvin F.
    Reid, Timothy L.
    Ringgold, Faith
    Robinson, Colin
    Rolle, Esther
    Saint, Assoto, 1957-1993
    Signifyin' Works.
    Sloan, Lenwood
    Smith, Barbara, 1946-
    Turner, Patricia A.
    Tyson, Mike, 1966-
    University of California, Berkeley.
    Wallace, Michele
    Watkins, Mary
    West, Cornel
    Wolper, David L.
    Woods, Donald
    X, Malcolm, 1925-1965
    African American dancers.
    African American HIV-positive men
    African Americans
    African Americans --History --Study and teaching (Higher).
    African Americans --Study and teaching.
    African Americans in popular culture
    African Americans in popular culture--Songs and music.
    African Americans musicians.
    African Americans on television
    African Americans--Attitudes
    African Americans--Caricatures
    African Americans--Civil rights--United States.
    African Americans--Music
    African Americans--Race identity
    AIDS (Disease)
    AIDS (Disease) and art
    AIDS (Disease) and the arts
    AIDS (Disease) in mass media
    AIDS (Disease)--Patients
    AIDS (Disease)--Social aspects--United States
    American poetry
    Art, American
    Arts, Modern- -20th century
    Black power--United States.
    Civil rights movements--United States.
    Civil rights--United States.
    Documentary films
    Documentary television programs
    Documentary television programs--Production and direction
    Educational television programs.
    Experimental films
    Film festivals
    Fund raising.
    Gay and lesbian film festivals
    Gay Community--San Francisco Bay Area
    Gay men
    Gay men's writings, American
    Gay men--Poetry
    Gay men--Sexual behavior--United States
    Gay men--United States--Social conditions
    Gay musicians.
    Gay rights
    Gays --California --Public opinion.
    Gender identity.
    Graduate students--Scholarships, fellowships, etc.
    Historical research.
    HIV-positive gay men
    HIV-positive persons
    Homosexuality in art.
    Homosexuality--United States.
    Minorities in television.
    Motion pictures--United States
    Music videos
    Poets, American.
    Race relations--History.
    Racism in popular culture
    Racism--United States--History--20th century
    Short films
    Stereotypes (Social psychology) in mass media
    Television -- Advertising commercials
    Television broadcasting--California.
    Television broadcasting--United States
    Television film.
    Television in education.
    Television programs--United States--History
    television, gameshows
    U.S. - social history
    United States--History
    University of California, Berkeley--Students.
    Video art.