Segments in this Video

Black Is...Black Ain’t (04:23)


Marlon Riggs challenged racism and homophobia with his work and his life. During the making of this film he died of AIDS. This film was completed in tribute to his vision and humanity. What it means to be black is difficult to define in an absolute sense.

"You Ain't Colored....You Black" (02:09)

Marlon Riggs was aware of social changes that were happening in the periphery of his life even as a child. He tells the story of calling another boy black at a time when it was an insult to call someone African or black.

"Don't Call Me Black" to "Black is Beautiful" (03:35)

Smith and Carlos were dismissed from the U.S. team after their silent protest against discrimination at the 1978 Olympics. The word "black" was associated with many negative terms, listed here. Black Americans remember these words and changing attitudes toward blackness.

Mulatto: Dominant, Submissive, Intermediate (03:29)

Marlon Riggs recalls yearly trips to Louisiana where everyone was a different shade. Ulysses S. Ricard, Jr. would have been spanked for calling his Creole father black. Some thought of Creole as cultural, others considered Creole racial or biological.

The Hair Test (02:01)

Ulysses S. Ricard, Jr. remembers dark skinned people being turned away from family gatherings. "Good" hair didn't require straightening.

Named by Society (02:01)

The meaning of words like black, Negro, colored, and Afro-American changed when black people started using the terms themselves. Marlon Riggs compares the exclusion of blacks with that of people with AIDS.

To Be a Black Man (02:33)

Marlon Riggs and his father were divided, like many other black boys and their fathers. Being a black man required a code of silence. Hurt, pain, and rage could not be acknowledged. Vulnerability was associated with being feminine.

Emasculated Male Identity (02:20)

The history of black oppression is about emasculation. Today, the dominant conception of black maleness is highly sexualized, making it hard for men to get in touch with their own humanity. Excerpt from Eddie Murphy "Raw." (Graphic language)

Black Masculinity (02:39)

For centuries, American culture portrayed black men as "playful eunuchs," childlike and weak. When black men finally achieved a public voice, restoring what society had repeatedly stolen from them was a priority.

Myth of the Black Woman (02:29)

With so many words about the black man, where were all of the women? "Black is beautiful" referred to the black man. Women who seek equality struggle with the notion of reinstating the black man as patriarch.

Speaking Truth to Power (02:57)

Michele Wallace was punished for speaking out about black male sexism. Black women have been resistant to feminism because of the oppression of black people as a whole, and because they fear losing the approval of men.

Black Music (03:03)

Blues is appreciated because of the meaning behind the songs. Marlon Riggs talks about jazz, spirituals, freedom songs, blues, opera, and funk. Music has been an important part of black heritage.

Value of Black History (02:09)

Students discuss whether or not learning about the past can improve life in the future.

Knowledge is Power (02:06)

Africans were historically seen as superstitious savages from the "dark continent." During the Italo-Ethiopian War in the 1930s some black people began to identify with Africa. Children express feeling proud of their ancestors.

African Village in America (02:14)

The Oyotunji African Village is located in Sheldon, South Carolina. The community was founded to fully develop African culture. It brings a reaffirmation of personal identity and preserves ancient customs and traditions.

Afrocentricity (02:53)

Appreciation for tradition evolves into the modern conversation about centeredness in Africa. Learning about ancestors brings pride. There is a tendency to mythologize the African past. Marlon Riggs talks about his t-cell count.

Role of the Black Patriarch (03:19)

The Bible teaches that man is the head of woman. A woman tells an intimate family story that demonstrates oppressive black patriarcy. In archival television footage, Louis Farrakhan disparages women.

The Woman Within (03:04)

Marlon Riggs discusses femininity and masculinity in the same person. He reflects on the way community is confined by its own notions of identity.

"Homosexuality is a deviation from Afrocentric thought" - Molefi Asante (03:48)

Gay blacks describe feeling excluded from the community. After Bayard Rustin organized the 1963 March on Washington, he was pushed out of the Civil Rights Movement.

Belonging and Community (02:40)

One must consider the role of the church in the history of blacks in the United States. The black church remains structured such that people are denied true freedom and exploration of humanity.

A Feeling of Belonging (02:50)

Recent homophobic initiatives supported by the black church do not promote community. Religion should not divide mankind. The Southern Baptist Church is very restrictive of black women.

Black Family (04:08)

Marlon Riggs explains why he is lying in bed. In an earlier interview in Dublin, Mississippi, he talks to a woman with 15 children. It is the ancestral tradition to give praise to those who have come before. Family means love and support.

40 Acres and a Mule (01:52)

A black farmer on St Helena Island, South Carolina explains that farming is in his blood. For many, rural life symbolizes the past. Some attempt to distance themselves from farming because of its association with slavery.

Gullah Language (02:16)

Marlon Riggs explains how this documentary deals in part with his struggle with AIDS. He remembers being berated for speaking properly. When he listens to the voices in his family he hears the evolution of cadences from generations past.

Do I Talk Black? (02:20)

At Harvard, Marlon Riggs stood out because he did not speak "black English." Even those committed to the Civil Rights Movement were constantly given the message that they were not "black enough." Blacks were accused of imitating whites if they did not "act black."

Black in Suburbia (02:28)

Some feel that members of the black middle class no longer identify as black. Being black is about values, not economics. For some the inner city may be the standard for defining what blackness is.

Tell the Next Generation (03:50)

Marlon Riggs comments on how easily people adapt to extraordinary circumstances, using examples from his battle with AIDS. Black kids in Inglewood, California talk about education and gangs in the ghetto.

Coming Together (02:47)

Bloods and Crips come together at the Unity Rally in Los Angeles. Black people have to reconcile themselves to each other and get over the notion that everyone has to agree. Multiple identities require new forms of community.

Crossing the River (02:48)

As he lies in bed battling AIDS, Marlon Riggs describes a dream he had about Harriet Tubman. He believes the dream was about overcoming the present crisis.

Recipe for a Black Person (02:19)

People offer ideas of what it means to be black and consider why it remains important to anyone to judge degrees of blackness.

Marlon Troy Riggs Feb 3, 1957 - April 5, 1991 (00:46)

Marlon Riggs wants to leave a legacy of faith that black people can overcome adversity and maintain a sense of communal self.

Credits: Black Is...Black Ain’t (03:23)

Marlon Riggs "sings" his "recipe for gumbo" as credits run.

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Black Is...Black Ain’t

3-Year Streaming Price: $199.95



Is there an essential black identity? In this documentary, acclaimed filmmaker Marlon Riggs explores the diversity of African American lifestyles and cultural expressions, even as many speakers bare their pain at having been called “too black,” or conversely, “not black enough.” Riggs brings viewers face-to-face with African-Americans young and old, rich and poor, rural and urban, gay and straight, while offering a powerful critique of sexism, homophobia, and colorism within the black community. Includes performances by choreographer Bill T. Jones and poet Essex Hemphill and commentary from noted cultural critics Angela Davis, bell hooks, Cornel West, and others. (87 minutes)

Length: 89 minutes

Item#: BVL49746

Copyright date: ©1995

Closed Captioned

Reviews & Awards

Sundance Film Festival, Filmmakers’ Trophy  


International Documentary Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award  


“Like Marlon himself, [this film] is brilliant, thoughtful, undaunted by anticipated criticism, and profoundly salutary to our health. It’s a powerful, interesting, riveting film.”  —Alice Walker  


“A dense, sizzling, stimulating gumbo of thought and emotion...A fascinating, challenging film.”  San Francisco Chronicle   


“Not just an insightful discussion of black consciousness, but a major contribution to the exploration of how we develop our identities.”  Variety   


“A complex and personal exploration of the multiplicity of black identity.”  Newsweek

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