Marlon Troy Riggs

Photographer unknown; promotional image used in many publications.

African American, Documentary Film, Cultural Theory

Marlon Troy Riggs


Marlon Riggs was an award-winning filmmaker whose work challenged racial and gay stereotypes in their historical and cultural contexts. 

Marlon Troy Riggs was born in 1957 in Fort Worth, Texas, to Alvin and Jean Riggs, who were civilian employees for the US military. Riggs grew up in Texas, Georgia, and West Germany. Though subjected to racist and homophobic bullying in junior high in Georgia, as a high school student in Germany, he excelled in his studies, played football, ran track, and was elected student body president. After high school graduation, he attended Harvard University and graduated magna cum laude with a BA in History (1978). 

After working for a local television station in Texas, he moved to Oakland, California.  There he earned an MA in journalism, with an emphasis in documentary film at University of California Berkeley (1981). His filmmaking career was shaped by his emergent realization that he was gay and an independent study of male homosexuality in American fiction and poetry while he was an undergraduate. The knowledge gained from these experiences informed the subject matter of and his approach to filmmaking. 

After working on several Bay Area independent film production teams as an editor and post-production supervisor, Riggs joined the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkeley as a part-time faculty in 1987 to teach documentary filmmaking. He became the youngest faculty to attain tenure at the school, and his academic articles dismantle gay stereotypes and reflect the themes he pursued in his films.  

During his short life, Riggs wrote, produced, and directed eight impactful films and videos. His first, Ethnic Notions (1987), which won an Emmy, featured folklorist Patricia Turner as one of the scholars. It critically examined pervasive racial stereotypes of African Americans from slavery to segregation and their 20th century legacies. Color Adjustment (1992) continued this discussion by examining a history of the representations of African Americans on television. In his final film, Black Is, Black Ain’t (1995), Riggs tackled the concept of Blackness in its myriad manifestations in African American communities. By using the metaphor of gumbo, he presented a critically complex, multifaceted, intersectional, and inclusive conception of race.

Riggs significantly made several films that explore Black male gay experiences. Operating from a liberatory and positive stance, Riggs used his films to not only dismantle stereotypes, but to tell stories that remain hidden in the shadows, highlighting the Black cultural aspects of being gay as well as capturing the experiences of coping with HIV-AIDS. Included among these films are: Tongues Untied (1989); Affirmations (1990); Anthem (1991); Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien/No Regret (1993); In the Life (2003). 

Among Riggs’ scholarship of interest to folklorists are:

Ethnic Notions (1987)

“Black Macho Revisited: Reflections of a SNAP! Queen.” In Freedom in this Village: Twenty-Five Years of Black Gay Men’s Writing, 1979 to the Present. Ed. E. Lynn Harris (1991/2005)

Phyllis M. May-Machunda

(coming soon)