CR Movie Club: Mahogany

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This is CR Movie Club. Each week in quarantine, we’re revisiting a classic film from yesteryear to explore why we loved it in the first place and how it holds up over time.

For all its camp and cringe-worthy clichés—not to mention its not-so feminist resolution for a woman to give up her dreams for the man she loves—Mahogany has historically been regarded by cinephiles as a flop. The 1975 feature starring Diana Ross (the singer’s second moving picture) was deemed a “lush” and “messy soap opera” by a notorious critic upon the film’s release, and indeed it was—and still remains today—inexcusably over the top. The costumes are kooky, the plot is implausible, and the flings feel both phony and exaggerated. Flamboyant and feathery, though, the movie directed by Motown Records’ Berry Gordon uses its fair of excess and fantasy to poetically examine racial discrimination in the fashion industry as well as in the greater world around it. Fourty-plus years to its debut, Mahogany’s critiques, while baited in chiffon and glitter, ring shockingly true to this day.

In the film, Tracy Chambers (Ross) dreams of one day becoming a fashion designer. Her days are filled with brainless secretarial errands for her ignorant fashion buyer boss at the department store she works at, and at night she commutes across Chicago to attend design school and work beside her aunt, a factory seamstress. Tracy lives on the South Side, a rough part of the city torn by gentrification and classist divide, where she meets Brian Walker (played by Billy Dee Williams), an activist organizing a demonstration for the local Black community, on her street. The two eventually become romantically involved despite both characters’ reservations towards the other’s path.

Later while working on a lookbook for the store, the photographer Sean McAvoy (who was inspired by Richard Avedon and is played by Anthony Perkins) is frustrated with his supplied cast and mistakes Tracy as a new model. Her boss laughs off the thought and explains that the clients are only interested in White models—that Tracy is a mere shopgirl turned secretary—but Sean is bewitched. Days later, a group of people gathers to watch the famous photographer in action as he stages the shoot outside a South Side dilapidated housing complex. Tracy follows Sean around set, directing the hyper-stylized, all-White models as he advises, and even pulling in real people from the crowd to be photographed. Attracted by the commotion, Brian shows up shocked at the display. He points out that all the White models are being payed by the hour but none of the Black people would be compensated. “This is fashion stuff, not politics,” Tracy replies irritated. “Everything is politics,” says Brian, explaining that the Black “regulars” from a lower income community were being used as props for visual effect. The scene speaks to the fashion industry’s long exploitation of Black bodies for creative aesthetics and refusal to acknowledge their rights or merits. Tracy as a character is torn between her own community and her personal aspirations toward a system that doesn’t want her to succeed. She feels like nothing is wrong because if she were to admit that something—or rather everything—was wrong she might never be discovered. Months pass, and eventually Sean coaxes Tracey to join him in Rome—then the center of the fashion world—where the photographer reintroduces her to the world as the supermodel Mahogany.

As Mahogany, Tracy’s life changes entirely. She becomes the most in-demand fashion model of her time, gracing billboards, magazine covers, and ads galore. In contrast to the tension-filled streets of Chicago, Mahogany’s world is one of runways and black tie galas, where dresses are auctioned off by the million without the blink of an eye nor pop of a bottle of Prosecco. But in la dolce vita, Tracy finds herself unfulfilled. Her career as a fashion designer has basically flatlined, and she is guilted into an affair with Sean, although it’s heavily implied that he is gay. At this point in the film though, the plot spirals out of control. Mad with jealous (and likely internalized homophobia), Sean literally is the cause of his own demise, crashing a high speed car attempting to photograph Tracy inside while driving. After his death, Mahogany begins a second loveless affair, this time with Count Christian Rosetti, a wealthy businessman who cares for her during her recovery and funds the creation of her fashion line.

Mahogany begins and ends with the debut of Tracy’s first designed fashion show. It’s presented in a confusingly both Chinese and Japanese-decorated ballroom in Rome before a crowd of black tie party goers clapping in awe. The fashions are a mix of David Bowie costume, avant-garde from Kubuki theatre, and Vegas showgirl, while the moment is bookended by “Do You Know What You’re Going To,” the official theme song for the film, which was initially recorded by Thelma Houston in 1973 and then performed by Ross two years later. (Fun fact: Mariah Carey included a cover of the song on her 1998 album #1’s, and “I don’t know her” Jennifer Lopez did the same two years later for On the 6.)

Plot-wise is a culmination of Tracy’s life-long dreams, but psychologically it’s a reckoning. As she steps off the dragon-printed circle stage with her arms flared open, Tracy’s face shows only uncertain despair. Was it all worth it? Did comprising her beliefs and ignoring those close to her really get to happiness?Aside from the chaotic narrative (and it’s cheesy ending, spoiler: Tracy goes back to Chicago to reunite with Brian), it’s a larger awakening that resonates with the issues of our world today. At a time when systems and long-instated notions are dismantling, the need to rebuild has never been more important. Specifically for the fashion world, which has long taken the credit of Black and Brown people while displacing them from visibility. Mahogany might not be the best body of work, but as a movie directed by a Black filmmaker with a Black lead about changing the fashion system it was monumental.

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