There has never been a filmmaker quite 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 Criterion Collection’s upcoming must-own box set 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evolution of a transformative filmmaker whose work is both an electrifying call for liberation and an invaluable historical document. Included are the films Ethnic Notions, Tongues United, Affirmations, Anthem, Color Adjustment, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regret) and Black Is… Black Ain’t.
You can find more info about each of the films below – along with the awesome new Criterion Collection artwork – and click here to pre-order your copy. The Signifyin’ Works of Marlon Riggs will be available on DVD and Blu-ray beginning June 22nd.
Riggs brings viewers face-to-face with the insidious images that have shaped America’s racial mythologies, in his first major work, a brilliant and disturbing deconstruction of the ways in which anti-Black stereotypes have permeated nearly every aspect of popular culture. Through razor-sharp historical analysis including interviews with historians and folklore scholars, powerfully deployed imagery, and narration by actor Esther Rolle, Ethnic Notions illuminates, with devastating clarity, how dehumanizing caricatures of Black people—seen everywhere from children’s books to films to household products—have been used to uphold white supremacy and to justify slavery, segregation, and the continuing oppression of African Americans. In its refusal to look away from racism’s ugliest manifestations, this Emmy-winning documentary has become an essential text for understanding the origins of American racial violence.
Made, in Riggs’s own words, to “shatter the nation’s brutalizing silence on matters of sexual and racial difference,” this radical blend of documentary and performance defies the stigmas surrounding Black gay sexuality in the belief that, as long as shame prevails, liberation will never be possible. Through music and dance, words and poetry by such pathbreaking writers as Essex Hemphill and Joseph Beam—and by turns candid, humorous, and heartbreaking interviews with queer African American men—Tongues Untied gives voice to what it means to live as an outsider in both a Black community rife with homophobia and a largely white gay subculture poisoned by racism. A lightning rod in the conservative culture wars of the 1980s that incited a right-wing furor over public funding for the arts, the film has lost none of its resonance in its unapologetic, life-affirming declaration that “Black men loving Black men is the revolutionary act.”
Riggs expresses the hopes, dreams, and desires of gay Black men in this ode to queer African American empowerment. Built around outtakes of interview and protest footage from Tongues Untied, Affirmations begins as a candid, sex-positive confessional about first-time penetration and evolves into a rousing chorus of calls for freedom, recognition, and inclusion.
“Pervert the language.” Made at a time when Riggs was three years into living with HIV and the motto “Silence=Death” was the queer community’s defiant response to the antigay policies of the Reagan era, this experimental music video employs a mix of poetry, African beats, and provocative imagery—sexual, political, and religious—in order to challenge and redefine prevailing images of Black masculinity. Led by the liberated dancing of the filmmaker himself, Anthem is a bold vision of queer revolution, proclaiming “Every time we kiss we confirm the new world coming.”
What does the American dream look like? Where do Black Americans fit into it? And what is television’s role in shaping our views of racial progress and the idealized American family? Picking up where the groundbreaking Ethnic Notions left off, this pioneering work of media studies by Riggs presents a complicated, challenging, and nuanced view of evolving racial attitudes as reflected in popular programs such as Amos ’n’ Andy, Julia, All in the Family, Good Times, Roots, and The Cosby Show. Narrated by Ruby Dee and featuring interviews with actors Diahann Carroll, Tim Reid, and Esther Rolle, African American historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., and producer Norman Lear, among others, Color Adjustment looks beyond the whitewashed, middle-class mythologies peddled by prime-time entertainment to track the ways in which Black Americans have been assimilated into a new but no less harmful racial narrative.
Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regret)
Through music, poetry, and courageous self-disclosure, five HIV-positive gay Black men (among them poet and performance artist Assotto Saint) discuss their individual confrontations with AIDS, illuminating their journeys through the fear, shame, and stigma that accompanied the disease at the height of the epidemic toward healing, acceptance, and truth. In Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regret), Riggs tells stories of self-transformation in which a once unmentionable “affliction” is forged into a tool of personal and communal empowerment.
Black Is… Black Ain’t
Made with an urgency imparted by the knowledge that he was nearing the end of his life, Riggs’s final film—completed after his death of AIDS by a group of his devoted collaborators—is a wide-ranging consideration of a question that had long been central to his work: What does it mean to be Black? Using his mother’s gumbo recipe as a metaphor for the diversity of the African American experience, Riggs travels the country, seeking insights from leading thinkers like Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates Jr., bell hooks, and Barbara Smith as well as ordinary people—young and old, rich and poor, rural and urban, gay and straight—all grappling with the numerous, often contested definitions of Blackness that have shaped their lives. Punctuated by footage of a dying Riggs directing his crew and delivering parting wisdom from his hospital bed, Black Is . . . Black Ain’t breaks down the divides of class, colorism, patriarchy, and homophobia as it issues a stirring appeal for unity.
Maverick filmmaker David Cronenberg‘s wildly controversial 1996 cult favorite Crash is getting a special edition release on DVD and Blu-ray via The Criterion Collection. For this icily erotic fusion of flesh and machine, Cronenberg adapted J. G. Ballard’s future-shock novel of the 1970s into one of the most singular and provocative films of the 1990s.
A traffic collision involving a disaffected commercial producer, James (James Spader), and an enigmatic doctor, Helen (Holly Hunter), brings them, along with James’s wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger, in a sublimely detached performance), together in a crucible of blood and broken glass – and it’s not long before they are all initiated into a kinky, death-obsessed underworld of sadomasochistic car-crash fetishists for whom twisted metal and scar tissue are the ultimate turn-ons.
Controversial from the moment it premiered at Cannes – where it won a Special Jury Prize “for originality, for daring, and for audacity” – Crash has since taken its place as a key text of late-twentieth-century cinema, a disturbingly seductive treatise on the relationships between humanity and technology, sex and violence, that is as unsettling as it is mesmerizing.
This new edition from The Criterion Collection includes a new 4K digital restoration supervised by cinematographer Peter Suschitzky; audio commentary from 1997 featuring Cronenberg; press conference footage from the 1996 Cannes Film Festival featuring Cronenberg, author J. G. Ballard and actors Rosanna Arquette, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas, James Spader and Deborah Kara Unger; a Q&A from 1996 with Cronenberg and Ballard at the National Film Theatre in London; behind-the-scenes footage and press interviews; and an essay by film critic Jessica Kiang.
Watch an original trailer for Crash below and click here to pre-order your copy. The DVD and Blu-ray will be available in December.
The Criterion Collection graced us with their selection of September releases this week and among the selections is the achingly erotic 1999 classic Beau Travail.
With her ravishingly sensual take on Herman Melville”s Billy Budd, writer-director Claire Denis firmly established herself as one of the great visual tone poets of our time. Amid the azure waters and sun-baked desert landscapes of Djibouti, a French Foreign Legion sergeant (Denis Lavant) sows the seeds of his own ruin as his obsession with a striking young recruit (Gregoire Colin) plays out to the thunderous, operatic strains of Benjamin Britten. Denis and cinematographer Agnes Godard fold military and masculine codes of honor, colonialism’s legacy, destructive jealousy, and repressed desire into shimmering, images that ultimately explode in one of the most startling and unforgettable endings in all of modern cinema.
This new special edition of Beau Travail from the Criterion Collection includes a 4K digital restoration, supervised by director of photography Agnes Godard and approved by director Claire Denis, with uncompressed stereo soundtrack on the Blu-ray; a new conversation between Denis and filmmaker Barry Jenkins; new selected scene commentary with Godard; new interviews with actors Denis Lavant and Gregoire Colin; a new video essay by film scholar Judith Mayne; brand-new English subtitle translation; and an essay by film critic Girish Shambu.
Watch a clip from Beau Travail below and click here to pre-order your copy. It’s coming to DVD and Blu-ray in September.
Voguing, at the time, was an underground form of dance created and perfected by the African-American and Latino gay communities. It burst onto the scene when Madonna took voguing for herself and popularized it. But with Paris is Burning, we also got to meet the originators of the form.
This landmark documentary provides a vibrant snapshot of the 1980s through the eyes of New York City’s African American and Latinx Harlem drag-ball scene. Made over seven years, Paris is Burning offers an intimate portrait of rival fashion “houses,” from fierce contests for trophies to house mothers offering sustenance in a world rampant with homophobia, transphobia, racism, AIDS, and poverty. Featuring legendary voguers, drag queens, and trans women – including Willi Ninja, Pepper LaBeija, Dorian Corey, and Venus Xtravaganza – Paris is Burning brings it, celebrating the joy of movement, the force of eloquence, and the draw of community.
With this trailblazing musical, writer-director-star John Cameron Mitchell and composer-lyricist Stephen Trask brought their signature creation from stage to screen for a movie as unclassifiable as its protagonist.
Raised a boy in East Berlin, Hedwig (Mitchell) undergoes a traumatic personal transformation in order to emigrate to the U.S., where she reinvents herself as an “internationally ignored” but divinely talented rock diva, characterized by Mitchell as a “beautiful gender of one.”
The film tells Hedwig’s life story through her music, an eclectic collection of original punk anthems and power ballads by Trask, matching them with a freewheeling cinematic mosaic of music-video fantasies, animated interludes, and moments of bracing emotional realism. A hard-charging song cycle and a tender character study, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a tribute to the transcendent power of rock and roll.
A fastidious composer reeling from a disastrous concert, Gustav von Aschenbach (Dirk Bogarde, in an exquisitely nuanced performance) travels to Venice to recover. There, he is struck by a vision of pure beauty in the form of a young boy named Tadzio (Björn Andrésen), his infatuation developing into an obsession even as rumors of a plague spread through the city.
Restrained but emotionally involving, this harrowing tale of a woman who becomes physically allergic to the environment doubles as an AIDS allegory. Safe, an indie classic from Todd Haynes, was greatly misunderstood back in 1995, when it was first released. Over the years, it has become a critically-acclaimed cult classic and has garnered a reputation as a subversive stand-out of the New Queer Cinema movement.
One of the British New Wave’s most versatile directors, John Schlesinger came to New York in the late 1960s to make Midnight Cowboy, a picaresque story of friendship that captured a city in crisis and sparked a new era of Hollywood movies.
Jon Voight delivers a career-making performance as Joe Buck, a wide-eyed hustler from Texas hoping to score big with wealthy city women. He finds a companion in Enrico “Ratso” Rizzo, an ailing swindler with a bum leg and a quixotic fantasy of escaping to Florida, played by Dustin Hoffman in a radical departure from his breakthrough in The Graduate.
“Where do these people come from? Where do they go when the sun goes down? Isn’t there a law of something?” -Rex Reed
Glamour has never been more grotesque than in Female Trouble, John Waters‘ 1974 classic, dubbed at the time “a new high in low taste.” The film injects old-school Hollywood melodrama with anarchic decadence. Divine, Waters’ larger-than-life muse, engulfs the screen with charisma as Dawn Davenport, the living embodiment of the film’s lurid mantra, “Crime is beauty,” who progresses from a teenage nightmare hell-bent on getting ‘cha-cha heels’ for Christmas to a fame monster whose ego-maniacal impulses land her in the electric chair.