For those, like me, who may be growing a tad weary of the current trend in the onscreen representation of African-Americans in roles relegated almost exclusively to liberal, guilt-appeasing, “social problem” dramas like Lincoln, The Help, The Butler, and the forthcoming, 12 Years a Slave (all well-intentioned efforts that nevertheless court crossover boxoffice appeal by propagating that overworked 60s stereotype of the noble, long-suffering servant / slave); I recommend cinematic relief from all these retrograde “Nobody knows the trouble I’s seen” dramas in a most unlikely source. The 1975 Diana Ross film, Mahogany. Yes, THAT Mahogany.
In light of today’s dearth of films to present blacks in any other context beyond their race and the obstacle said race poses (“To whom”? being the operate question) ,
’s old-fashioned soap opera plotabout an ambitious, entrepreneurial fashion designer who becomes a world-class fashion model, looks positively subversive.Mahogany
is Diana Ross’ much-maligned follow-up to her Oscar-nominated film debut inLady Sings the Blues
(1972). It tells the story of Tracy Chambers, an aspiring fashion designer from the slums of Chicago who finds fame and fortune, but not much in the way of happiness, as Mahogany, international supermodel. Or, as the ads proclaimed, “The woman every woman wants to be – and every man wants to have!”
By almost any aesthetic criterion, Mahogany is not a very good film. Its script is clichéd and hackneyed, the performances negligible, and Diana Ross’ bordering-on-insane fashion designs (which, understandably, figure heavily into the plot) are pure camp. But time has been very kind to Mahogany, and what once looked merely over-the-top and glossily superficial now reveals a distinct ideological advantage over the films made today.
Mahogany dared present an African-American woman in the kind of rarefied glamorous leading lady role once reserved exclusively for the Lana Turners, Joan Crawfords, and Lauren Bacall’s. Mahogany posits a woman of color in a major motion picture as something other than a cause for pity, a sass-talking sexpot, or a badass kung-fu mama. If you weren't around in the 70s, you probably have no idea how revolutionary this was.
The character of Tracy Chambers is a woman with dreams and ambitions defined by her personality, not her race. She is presented as capable, driven, and, most importantly, successful. An image thousands of young people, especially young girls, still find incredibly inspiring…in spite of the film’s overall weaknesses.
To read more about Mahogany and why, with all its flaws, it is a film that matters (perhaps now, more than ever) check out the full article here on my blog: http://lecinemadreams.blogspot.com/2013/09/mahogany-1975.html