Cinematic: 'Mahogany' & The Politics Of Carefree Black Girls

"They all love me! Men and women! I'm Mahogany and you're nothing!"

Last year while participating in National Novel Writing Month, I decided that my writing project was going to be based in the 1970s as I have a fascination with the glitzy decade of disco and progression. In hindsight I broke an itty-bitty rule of NaNo as while in the middle of plowing through my rough draft I did some slight research, and by "research" I was watching movies that would help get me in the mood for the type of vibe I wanted this work of progress to possess (a sort of supernatural-meets-feminist-detective tale...oh yeah, big literary pimpin'). Laugh, but one of the movies I viewed for study was 1975's Mahogany. I mean, what better way to dive right into the gaudy flamboyance of the 1970s than to view Diana Ross, Billy Dee Williams, and Anthony Perkins fuss, fight, and be campy delights in this Berry Gordy-directed flick?

Mahogany, to me, is not just an fun, entertaining romantic drama, it's truly the quintessential ode to the carefree Black woman --- and how outside people come along and gleefully stomp all over that ideal.

The film follows the charismatic and career driven Tracy Chambers (Ross), who by day works at a department store, and by night is studying to become a fashion designer. She is passionate about her craft and dreams about making it to the big leagues. Even though several doors close in her face and people --- from her department store supervisor to her fashion design teacher --- tell her she shouldn't be flinging her sequins and sass out there, she doesn't yield. She just purses her lips and plugs ahead, only receiving warm accolades and some sewing assistance from her Aunt Florence (played by the wonderful Beah Richards, who's sadly in the film for like 40 seconds).

When she meets and is romanced by suave grassroots politician, Brian Walker (Williams), Tracy becomes involved with his campaign to help reinvigorate the lower-class Chicago neighborhood they both live in. As they continue mixing romance with politics, Tracy still keeps her eye on the fashion prize, this to the lament of Brian as when Tracy drops a couple of dates and campaign rallies so she can continue taking sewing classes and finding new job opportunities, he becomes irate and makes snide comments about Tracy's career choices, being as discouraging as he can be just so she can help him campaign. Yep, B-I-G dick alert. Yet, Tracy, knowing that Brian is an intelligent Casanova Brown in the flesh (and that these type of brothers are hard to find out in these streets), she complies to his wishes...well, somewhat.

To complicate things further, the insanely complex fashion photographer, Sean McAvoy (Perkins) slinks into her life, and in a total Prince move, he stares Tracy down and re-names her "Mahogany" making her his ultimate muse. Almost overnight, Tracy is swept up into the opulence and opportunity of the Italian fashion world and becomes, with extreme 90 minute movie rapidity, a sought after fashion model, her face soon gracing billboards and big name magazine covers.

During these scenes our eyes are treated to some gorgeous panoramic shots of Rome, with the lush tones of the Academy-Award nominated, "Do You Know Where You're Going To" playing in the background all while Ross --- I mean --- Mahogany vogues it the hell up, wearing an assortment of glitzy and glam styles that are marvelous to view and will make you stand up and scream: YASSS QUEEN!

Problems arise as Tracy tries to balance her two dueling personalities all while deciding between the opportunity to have true love with Brian or continuing following her fashion dreams with McAvoy at her side.

As Mahogany progresses, you get a sense that there are some obvious elbow nudges towards the 2nd wave feminist movement of the 1970s. While you're rooting for Tracy to grab at her dreams, seeing her gain some ounce of respect and prominence in the industry --- men continuously fuck shit up for her.

Many men --- from Brian to McAvoy to a seemingly well-intended Italian count who looks like Liberace ---- try with all of their might to sexually and artistically belittle, smother, and possess Tracy. Whether its in high-end Italy or the rundown streets of Chicago, the patriarchy is for real, and Tracy for most of the movie sips the condescending tea she's being served, knowing that if she just follows one more nag of McAvoy's or does one more fashion spread where she's crusted in glitter, she's closer to being able to design her own fashion line. At times where Tracy is being heckled, I want to jump into the movie and tell her, "Girl, honey no, don't let them do this you!", and throw at her copies of Audre Lorde's, Sister Outsider or something.

Thankfully, whenever Tracy's accosted and exasperated at the sausage thumping, she stands up for herself and gets to bitch slapping and tossing shade. During one bold move, she dons one of her own creations for the audience to bid on at a fashion show, and the result is disastrous as she is almost laughed off the stage thanks to McAvoy (who's salty after bedding Tracy and finding out that his *ahem* drawbridge can't rise when it comes to the womenfolk) starting the dress' bid off on a price that is embarrassingly low, cheapening it to Wal-Mart fare.

Things go even more off the rails when Brian sees Tracy on the cover of a magazine, gets wistful, and flocks to Italy, hoping to reconcile with Tracy, but instead he meets "Mahogany", and without fail they butt heads with their divergent lifestyles, neither one understanding each other as they struggle to be on the same page.

At this point Mahogany attempts to address the overall dilemma of the modern career-seeking woman, posing the questions: should you pursue your career passions (and in the end wind up being a beard to a batshit crazy photographer) or should you stand by the progressive man that you love who doesn't care about your career dreams and who rocks a better press n' curl than you?

Oh the appealing options....

This ultimatum becomes present when Brian tells Tracey the film's anchor tagline, that "success is nothing without someone to love to share it with".


That's a salient, saccharine Hallmark card point, but it doesn't help elevate Mahogany's disappointing ending.

After McAvoy goes off the deep end (literally) wanting to "photograph death" and all, Tracy becomes sponsored by her auction rescuer, the cloying Count Christian Rosetti, and is able to get the fashion line she has been craving for up and running. Yet, instead of being happy about this, Tracy becomes overwhelmed and has transformed into a raging Prada-wearing devil as she's yelling at her employers and demanding outrageous things because well, when women reach success we become raging balls of bitchiness, right? *rolls eyes*

Reeling from the pressure, Tracy wipes her tears and "de-bitches" herself and runs back to Chicago to be with her "old man" Brian, showering him with kisses all while his dreamy eyes say, "I told you that fashion design stuff was some crazy White folk mess..."

While I don't mind ditching fame and fortune for true love, but Brian was always, to me, never truly supportive of Tracey's ambitions. All that "success" talk was largely for Brain and his success, not Tracy's. When the film fades to black, there is this bittersweet hollow feeling that Tracey, after all the struggle and sweat, extinguished her plans to be the next Diane Von Furstenburg so she could be with someone who often was always so chastising to her passions.

Though this film is celebrating 40 years of shelf life (!), the pressure for women to "have it all", to pick between love and career success is still a prevalent conflict today. Of course the idea seems a little archaic, even absurd in present terms when we see women being prominent business figures and attending higher education at abundant rates, but there is still an undertone in the dialogue about working women, that if a woman is pursuing a career, she is only doing so to "fill in the time" until the "right man" comes along. Mahogany addresses this type of patronizing notion.

Brian looked "right" on paper, he was what Tracy wanted for a partner, someone who she could match wits with, but Tracy loved fashion and all that it embodied, it's what made her tick, what gave her an outlet to be her true self, and it was her own personal fulfillment, yet it seemed by film's end she had listened to too many people and just let her ambition buckle, which is quite disheartening. This is why I sort of wish this particular movie would've redefined the improbable notion that women --- especially women of color --- can only be a success if they are in love with another.

To some, it looks like pure wish fulfillment, but women of color barely get to glow in the kind of narrative where they can achieve a successful career and still get the guy in the end. While the movie seemed to go in this direction in the beginning, it roughly steered away from it, and for reasons that are little bit baffling to me, especially since Ross herself is one of the prototypes for being someone who didn't give up her career so easily --- she was a woman who was able to slip into slinky glittery catsuits to entertain the masses and be a proud hands-on mama to five children.

Think my criticism was harsh? Mahogany was pretty much slammed by critics when it was released. Roger Ebert called it a "big, lush, messy soap opera", noting how black feminists would be uncomfortable with the ending (Ah, bless you, Rog #missyou), while TIME magazine shaded Gordy's direction by declaring that he squandered "one of America's natural resources: Diana Ross". Ouch.

Mahogany was also plagued with production troubles that led this film to be viewed as gimmicky film making. Gordy (who had never directed a film before in his life) replaced British director Tony Richardson mid-production, and you can tell that he doesn't command the megawatt talent he has on-screen to the best of their abilities. He's a music producer after all, not someone with keen sense of the acting craft. Off-camera squabbles between Ross, Perkins, and Gordy, also lent to the frigidness of the direction, and proved the film was indeed blurring the lines between fact and fiction.

For this, Mahogany doesn't posses the elements to make it Oscar-winning material, and though it's hard to believe, I'm glad for that.

Though there was a progressive Black feminist portrait nestled in the film's first half, at its heart, this movie is deliciously campy. It's a camp classic strictly for how many hilarious one-liners are uttered and for all the zany moments that occur and confirm that cocaine was a helluva a drug in the mid-1970s. From Tracy at one point randomly pouring hot candle wax on herself to this laughably bizarre and somewhat homoerotic gun fight between Brian and Sean, and well, pretty much every shady quip that spills out of Anthony Perkins' mouth, this film is what happens when you ride the white horse bareback and leap over a goddamn glittering rainbow. Don't be like me and analyze this movie's obtuse feminism themes, to enjoy this film, just throw your head back, sip a little bubbly, and feel the rush.

The performances are soapy and delightful. Williams is just too suave and swarmy for even his own mustache. Perkins pretty much steals all the scenes he's in, playing McAvoy as if he's Norman Bates loose from the loony bin with camera in hand. Plus how can you not love Dame Diana Ross?! She is the only one attempting to take the movie seriously, but I always cackle at one part where she goes off the rails at Williams, calling him flat-out stupid, and she's got candle wax sticking to her, and her hair is disheveled. She just looks so snatched in that scene that its hard to hold back laughs as she lays into Williams with the infamous "I am Mahogany! I'm a winner, baby!" monologue.

Ross is an OD (Original Diva), a former Supreme, who gave us classic hits like "Love Hangover" and "Upside Down", and who birthed the great Tracee Ellis-Ross --- you have to bow down to her bossness in whatever avenue she so ventured in. If you ignore the critical sneers and scratch away the sequins, viewing this film from a 1970s perspective, you'll begin to understand how Mahogany really just amplified how much of an fashion icon Ross became at this time.

Though 1972's Lady Sings The Blues, was Ross' official film debut, Mahogany was a true coming out celebration for Ross to showcase her fashion forward style. Ross designed the array of looks seen throughout the film, from the glitzy kabuki gear to the amazing rainbow gown, all of it had Ross' signature stamp on it. A fashionable announcement it was as Ross' horn toot fell in line with the rest of the progressive symphony of Black models such as Beverly Johnson, Iman, Pat Cleveland, Grace JonesCharlene DashNaomi Sims, and others, rising in the ranks of the fashion industry, bringing awareness that Black femininity and style was worth celebrating and investing in.

Also Mahogany's success with the viewing public further proved that Black was beautiful at the box-office. Upon its release, the film grossed over $7 million --- an eye-brow raise amount at the time for a movie that circled around a Black love story --- and movie theaters across the nation had to contest with the demand for tickets as showings began to sell out. It's telling how in-demand a movie like Mahogany was, especially for Black Americans, who often have to fight tooth and nail to get their stories put on screen. For once, Mahogany wasn't a movie depicting the historical horrors of slavery, nor was it attempting to show Black people as forgettable background characters or overdrawn Blaxploitation caricatures, this film dared to bring Black glamour to the mainstream.

Even with its shaky faux pas towards gender equality and sticky sweet camp quality, I will forever twirl around in a rainbow gown for Mahogany. I love how unashamed of its exaggerated 1970s gaudiness it is and how it's the type of movie that could never get made today.

Aside from their character motivations, Ross and Williams were a special duo back in the day, as Mahogany was made specifically because their pairing in Lady Sings The Blues was so successful. To ooze a balanced sex appeal and have great chemistry like they do is a rarity, considering how nymphomaniac or asexual a lot of Black characters in films and television shows are drawn as, and like mentioned, this movie avoids racism completely, which is a nice break. For that I can't help but find guilt in its pleasure.

Still, the main reason this could never get made is that seeing a confident and independent woman of color having goals to be a fashion designing deity (and wooing two White men in the process) is just unfathomable to the 21st Century cinema narrative. I mean, heads rolled and exploded when Scandal premiered, while tongues wagged when Viola Davis dared to show off her classic beauty as Annalise Keating in How To Get Away With Murder. 40 years later we're getting better, diverse roles are opening up, but we still have a long way to go before Black women feel fully welcomed into the 'All-American Girl' narrative.

Mahogany is truly a relic of its era. It's a travelogue of the 1970s, an inspiring vision for the extravagant ball culture, a celebratory timepiece for the sisterhood, a camp classic. It illuminates a time where Black people really pushed, created, and diverted away from the (White) mainstream to show themselves in lights that they saw fit. I'm even stunned at how this movie got made back then (Gordy and his greasy gall, of course), but that's what I love about 1970s cinema, people weren't so bunged up about trying to fit into a particular niche, weren't clutching pearls over showing nudity, weren't blushing over saying chortle-worthy dialogue. They just let the cameras roll and let magic and the mayhem happen.

+ Mahogany is currently up for viewing on YouTube

Some of these screencaptures and GIFs come from: Look At These Gems and Tumblr
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