Documentary fellowships named for maverick filmmaker Riggs

July 29, 2014

The UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism’s first endowed fellowships in documentary filmmaking are named for a pioneer: a professor who, toward the end of his life, would teach from his hospital bed by speaker phone; an alumnus who, by the time of his death at age 37, had confronted racism and homophobia with the challenging documentary films “Tongues Untied,” “Ethnic Notions,” and “Je Ne Regrette Rien (No Regrets).”

Marlon T. Riggs continues to inform and inspire our work at the J-School. Professor Jon Else calls Riggs “without a doubt the greatest documentary maker ever to emerge from the University of California, Berkeley.”

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Riggs graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and received his master’s degree in journalism at Berkeley, where he became a tenured professor. The pioneering black gay filmmaker transformed his J-School training into provocative, award-winning work during the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s.

“His bold films seemed to come roaring out of nowhere, at a time when documentary was becoming cooler and cooler, when all our training and caution led us to erase ourselves and our voices from the screen,” Else writes. “Marlon taught us another way.”

Riggs’ legacy already lives on in hundreds of nonfiction filmmakers who have graduated from our documentary program to positions at such powerhouses as HBO, PBS, Discovery, and the BBC. We expect Riggs fellows to further invigorate the field with work on the critical cultural and social subjects of their generation.

The fellowships are made possible by a $100,000 matching grant from Riggs’ Oakland-based production company, Signifyin’ Works. “Drawing inspiration from Harriet Tubman, Marlon dedicated his life to helping those enslaved to cross the river to freedom, and those silenced to find their voice,” says Vivian Kleiman, a filmmaker and Signifyin’ Works board member. “We are pleased to donate these matching funds to the School of Journalism to honor Marlon’s work.”

The J-School’s founding at the height of the tumultuous 1960s helped weave intellectual courage, independence of mind, and principled social engagement into what have become our unique values. A commitment to carry on Riggs’ legacy is a natural extension of this culture.

“It has been 20 years since Marlon died,” says Jack Vincent, Riggs’ surviving domestic partner. “Beyond his individual work, his influence lives on in his treasured students who often came to the UCB School of Journalism specifically to work with him. His childhood vision of becoming a preacher became transformed into the notion of giving his students and his subjects a voice; their own voice! And the need for those voices continues to this day. A donation to the scholarship fund named in his honor will help to maintain that legacy.”

To be a part of this historic fundraising drive, make a tax-deductible donation now.

About the Documentary Program

UC Berkeley’s documentary program is widely considered one of the strongest and most important graduate documentary programs in the United States. Carrying on the work begun by Andy Stern in the late 1970s and Marlon Riggs in 1987, Professor Jon Else has trained more than 200 young nonfiction filmmakers of astonishing talent, diversity, and accomplishment.

Grounded in the values of professional journalism “Ò accuracy, eloquent clarity, aggressive research and reporting, fine writing, ethics and analysis “Ò and combined with fundamentals of solid filmmaking, documentary production here emphasizes visual imagery and a wide range of storytelling styles “Ò investigative, historical, biography, personal essay and cinema verite.

Dean's Newsletter

May 2020 Dean’s Letter

  Dear friends of Berkeley Journalism, It’s an irony of the pandemic that at the same time many of us face a daily regimen of confinement and isolation, we are…