Independent Film Festival of Boston 2018: The Gospel According to Andre, by Sarah Brinks
André Leon Talley is a dream subject for a documentary. He stands out physically as a 6’ 6” African American man, vocally with a deep booming voice, and historically because he spent his life breaking down barriers. I think Talley’s story is important to be told and right now, is the perfect time to be telling it.
Talley was raised in the segregated south in Durham, North Carolina. He remembers the degradation of Jim Crow laws and watching the Civil Rights Movement play out. As a child, Talley had rocks thrown at him on a college campus as he was walking across town to pick up the latest copy of Vogue magazine at a news stand. Talley sought refuge in fashion magazines and books. He read about historical fashion icons while keeping his finger on the pulse of modern fashion. In an interview with one of his high school teachers he recalls a grey Dior-inspired skirt she had some forty-plus years ago. Anna Wintour, a close friend of Talley’s and colleague at Vogue, admitted that her fashion history wasn’t strong when she started at Vogue and she relied on Talley for that knowledge.
A framing device the film uses is the 2016 election. Talley is a bit of a news junky and he tracks the progress of election throughout the filming of the documentary. The film ends in November 2016 with Talley and the rest of the world coming to terms with the results of the presidential election. Talley speaks about how he wished his grandmother, who raised him, had been alive to see a black president of the United States. Most of the film Talley speaks about the way he was raised and the necessity of braking barriers in a matter of fact way. But when he speaks about his grandmother his tone and mannerisms change. She worked as a domestic maid in a dorm to support them and she gave him the freedom and courage to be what he is today. He and his friends talk about how there was a lot of pressure on the African American population to be the best, to be excellent, because anything else would not give you a chance to move up in the world.
Kate Novack’s The Gospel Accord to André, is a straightforward documentary. It is mostly, straight-to-camera interviews, historical footage, or on the street footage. But it still fascinating to watch because Talley and his life is fascinating. It is also full of, what I would like to nickname, “fashion porn”. The clothes in the film are divine. You see many clips from fashion shows throughout the years and fashion spreads from magazines full of beautiful clothes. Talley even admits to a few of his fashion mistakes over the years, but most of the time is draped in expensive coats or his signature, colorful caftans and large jewelry. Since Talley is nearly seventy years old now, the film takes a look at fashion throughout the decades and some the key signature pieces and designers. We see how black women in the 1940s used their weekly trips to church to express themselves with their clothes and hats, through the disco seventies, right up to 2016 when the film was shot. The interviews are a “who’s who” of the fashion world, from Marc Jacobs to Manolo Blahnik to Isabella Rossellini.
Talley’s struggle to get to the top of the fashion world was not an easy one. After getting himself out of the segregated south he had to work hard to get himself to a position of power. He used his intelligence, natural sense of style, and charisma to get him there. He speaks about how offensive it is to him when people say he slept his way to the top or did anything other than what he did to get his level of success. You see the strength it must have taken to get to where he is and how bitter some of those cruel memories still are for him.
The Gospel Accord to André is the story of one man breaking down racial barriers and becoming a success in a time when African Americans had few opportunities in the fashion world. Talley brought a new perspective to fashion and simply never backed down when people questioned his perspective. He is loud, boisterous, colorful, intelligent, and funny. Beyond just a documentary about a fashion icon, The Gospel Accord to André is a story of how strong people can overcome great odds. And in a time of great division and racial tension in America, I think it is a vital story to be told.