1957 - 1994

"My struggle has allowed me to transcend that sense of shame and stigma identified with my being a Black gay man. Having come through the fire, they can't touch me."

- Marlon Riggs

Riggs first rose to prominence as the director, producer and writer of Ethnic Notions (1987), an Emmy Award-winning documentary that explored the effects of African-American stereotypes. Reviewing the accomplishments of his life, the then 31-year old filmmaker decided it was time to stop, as he described it, “extracting out sexuality” from his work. The result was the ground-breaking documentary Tongues Untied (1989) which, along with Isaac Julien’s Looking for Langston (1988), was one of the first widely viewed films to examine black gay sexuality from a black point of view. Although Tongues Untied met with wide-spread critical acclaim, it drew fire from conservative politicians when it was broadcast on American public television. In the ensuing controversy, Riggs became one of the best-known and most outspoken black gay male activists. His death from an AIDS-related illness in 1994 came prior to completion of his final work, Black Is... Black Ain't, a film which explored self-hatred, racism, sexism and homophobia within the African-American community.


Gender Male

Sexual Orientation Gay

Gender Identity Cisgender

Ethnicity African American Black

Nations Affiliated United States Germany

Era/Epoch AIDS Era (1980-present) Information Age (1970-present) Post-Stonewall Era (1974-1980)

Field(s) of Contribution





Social Justice


Commemorations & Honors

Tongues Untied Received the National Black Programming Consortium Best Black Independent Production, Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame Outstanding Merit Award and the American Film Institute Maya Deren Award

Color Adjustment Received the George Foster Peabody Award, Organization of American Historians Erik Barnouw Award, International Documentary Association Outstanding Achievement Award and a Sundance Film Festival Premiere Screening.

National Emmy Award Recipient For Ethnic Notions (1987)

California College for the Arts & Crafts Honorary Doctorate Degree (1993)

The Marlon Riggs Apartments/Vernon Street In Oakland, CA Named After Riggs and Also Includes a Plaque in His Honor (1996)


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Original Biography Author
Owen Keehnen
Biography Edited By
Victor Salvo
Resources Coordination
Carrie Maxwell