I’ll admit to generally taking a pass on fashion documentaries, because they assume a breathless fascination with designers and brands that I’ve never shared. (Thrift shops have been my clothier of choice since 1979.) But two new films are of broader interest, in that they focus on individuals—both pioneering African American models—who played significant roles in diversifying an industry and, by extension, broadening public perception of what constitutes “beauty.” While there’s certainly plenty of fashion imagery on display, neither of these films are ultimately much concerned with designers or their clothes.
Invisible Beauty, which opens at the Opera Plaza in SF this Fri/29, is a portrait of model, agent, and activist Bethann Hardison, a child of Brooklyn whose independent streak from an early age served her well in striding “like a samurai” on the runway—and through any institutionalized obstacles. Tall, androgynous, she became one of the principal faces varying a hitherto all-white look amongst leading fashion magazines and events in the early 1970s. Eventually she started her own agency to further that cause, pushing not just for heightened visibility, but equal pay, non-white models having been compensated less due to their perceived lesser popularity. She was by all accounts hugely successful, as testified to here by a variety of commentators including Whoopi Goldberg, Bruce Weber, Iman, Fran Lebowitz, Naomi Campbell, Ralph Lauren, and first Black male supermodel Tyson Beckford.
Nonetheless, Hardison gave that up in the mid-90s, not wanting fashion to define her life. What drew her back some years later was, rather surprisingly, an aftereffect of the Soviet bloc’s dissolution: Thin, white, lookalike “coathanger” models from former Iron Curtain nations wound up flooding the industry, reviving Jim Crow-era requests for “no Blacks, no ethnics” from agencies. A gregarious, uniting figure, she returned to shame designers and editors into re-raising their own consciousness, effecting a turnaround she realized had to be ongoing to maintain momentum.
This is basically a self-portrait, co-directed with Frederic Tcheng (who previously made films about Dior and Halston), produced “in association with Vogue Studios.” So it’s got its little blind spots: Hardison is vague about dates (good luck finding her age online), some of her notable professional activities go unmentioned, and the nearly two-hour film can’t seem to end, ultimately becoming a testimonial-dinner montage of triumphs. But Hardison is indeed an inspirational figure, as well as the kind of irrepressible personality who just seems naturally able to knock down barriers without anyone’s feelings getting hurt.
Her opposite number in some respects is the subject of Nailah Jefferson’s Donyale Luna: Supermodel, a recent addition to HBO and HBO Max. She was the first Black model to appear on the covers of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, yet has fallen into obscurity such that those milestones remain frequently attributed to other, later glamazons. Nonetheless, her life story is remarkable: Leaping from Detroit childhood in a strict, discordant home (her mother later “accidentally” killed her father) to NYC, then Swinging London, then Paris, then Rome, briefly becoming an “It Girl” in each.
En route, she fell in with the Warhol Factory crowd, dated Brian Jones (and Klaus Kinski!), became a muse to Salvador Dali, and appeared in a handful of counterculture screen classics: The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, William Klein’s fashion-industry sendup Who Are You, Polly Magoo?, as Groucho Marx’s mistress in the notorious Skidoo, and in Fellini Satyricon. TV interview footage from that period shows her startlingly kitted out in blue eye contacts, equal parts mod “kooky girl” and Bowie’s Man Who Fell From Earth.
That sounds like the coolest resume in the world, but this necessarily cloudy chronicle suggests its heroine wasn’t so much on a self-fulfilling joyride as a flight from self. Everything about her was an invention: Her name, indeterminate “exotic” accent, supposedly multi-racial and vague geographic roots were all hatched when she was still just awkward teenage Peggy Ann Freeman in Motor City, her parents working-class African American transplants via the Great Migration from the South.
Still-smitten former acquaintances cling to their notion of her fascinating ethereality, while surviving relatives seem to think exclusively of her in pre-fame terms. (None of them appear willing to admit she died of a heroin overdose, or even to utter the “h” word.) While she bewitched many, she also suffered professionally from the kind of bigotry her fanciful make-over had attempted to transcend. But one suspects no amount of acclaim or attention could ever have filled an inner void. By the 1979, she was gone, already largely forgotten. She died at age 33 as she’d largely lived: As an enigma.
If Supermodel grows sentimental and murky towards the end, as too many figures try to second-guess what was going on in doomed Luna’s mind, it nonetheless never fails to intrigue. Its subject was criticized for not taking an activist role—particularly since her fame coincided with the height of US civil rights struggles. But this documentary serves as a potent companion piece to Invisible Beauty, illustrating how the systemic racism that brings out a fighting spirit in some like Hardison turns others into escape artists, desperate to create a life and persona in denial of such issues.
Though speaking of denial, Supermodel has one very bizarre present-tense moment, involving a famous still-living model often credited with some of the breakthroughs Luna actually scored first. An old communication is read to her that underlines the discrimination Donyale had to deal with. The camera holds on the 71-y.o. (but 31-y.o.-looking) celebrity as she attempts to convey empathic anguish…but can’t, because her exquisitely preserved mug won’t move enough to express emotion anymore.
Both Luna and Hardison were parents (though the former died when her daughter was just eighteen months old), yet too restless to find long-term peace in domestic partnership—taking a positive slant, the latter says she regards her romantic relationships as being successful for lasting as long as they did. Still, the dream is a “forever” love…isn’t it? Questioning that assumption with a vengeance is Fair Play, which opens at SF’s Opera Plaza and Tiberon’s Cinelounge, then begins streaming on Netflix Oct. 6. A definite conversation-igniter at Sundance last January, writer-director Chloe Domont’s first feature (following several shorts and TV gigs) may be 2023’s go-to date movie…if you never want to see your date again. It’s a #MeToo era nightmare guaranteed to end the evening in awkward silences and mutual recoil.
Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are in love—secretly, because they work at the same hedge fund firm, where such mixing of the professional and the personal is frowned upon. Indeed, everything is frowned upon there, unless of course you’re pushing the numbers up. A few minutes in, an employee diversity-sensitivity seminar gets interrupted by the sound of a freshly fired colleague screaming “Fuck you all!” as he’s dragged off the premises. One gets the sense that such ugliness is a norm.
Still, these two have their hush-hush cohabitation and future marriage as a safe haven. That refuge proves all too fragile, however, particularly once the cut-throat office atmosphere of punishment and reward begins treating them unequally. Toxic competitiveness soon infects even their private dynamic, though perhaps not in the ways you’d expect. Despite being called a “dumb fucking bitch” to her face by a boss at one point, Emily is the party who gets invited into the top-ranked “boys’ club,” while Luke undergoes a horribly slow semi-public workplace emasculation. And that’s just when things are getting warmed up.
Fair Play is a strongly unpleasant drama with elements of grotesque comedy that wends its way towards some extremely discomfiting scenes—including just about the nastiest screen breakup ever. You could say it pushes ideas of intense current cultural relevance to an almost cartoonish level of contrivance. But Domont and her actors execute this over-the-top scenario with surgical skill, creating a more maximalist version of the minimalist studies in horrible human (especially battle-of-the-sexes) behavior that Neil LaBute made his name on. It’s a sharp, cruel movie that’s hard to “recommend” in some respects, but it sure does leave a lacerating impression.