“I said, ‘we’re gonna break free of all this.’ I didn’t know what it was that I wanted to break free of, but I wanted to switch it up. And I did.”

Bethann Hardison: Octogenarian, fashion dynamo, and the epitome of Black excellence. In 1973, she rose to fame as one of the first Black supermodels; in 1984, she founded the modeling agency Bethann Management, responsible for signing mega-stars Veronica Webb and Tyson Beckford; in 1988, she co-founded the Black Girls Coalition to spread racial awareness within the fashion and beauty industry; in 2013, she called out specific designers (Miuccia Prada and Calvin Klein among them) who mostly excluded Black models from the runway; and in 2020, she rallied again to funnel #BlackLivesMatter activism into a more accessible and equitable fashion industry for Black talent.

To say that Hardison has contributed to racial progress in one of the world’s most whitewashed realms is an understatement. Invisible Beauty, a new documentary on her remarkable life, is most overtly a celebration of her life as a fashion model, businesswoman, and advocate. Co-directed by Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng (and produced by Lisa Cortés, known for her recent documentary on Little Richard), the film also exposes how racial progress is not always linear.

When Hardison rose to acclaim in the 1970s, Black models, and the “Black Is Beautiful” mantra, were on a meteoric rise. So, too, in the 1980s and early ’90s, despite significant racism within the industry and continued systemic racial oppression in the US (which, notably, the film fails to acknowledge), Black models were increasingly present in advertising campaigns and on the runway. But by the mid-’90s, due to factors including a post-Cold War influx of Eastern European models, whiteness dominated fashion once again — specifically an ultra-thin whiteness that, for many young women at the time, became a dangerous aesthetic ideal, one that hasn’t entirely evaporated.

Bethann Hardison with the 1991 Black Girls Coalition in Invisible Beauty, a Magnolia Pictures release (© Oliveira Toscano, photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

As Invisible Beauty’s charismatic heart, Hardison is an electric presence onscreen. As the film makes clear, she’s become the fashion industry’s most visible advocate for diversifying the runway and promoting Black talent. But, arguably, the doc overreaches in terms of her political influence. During the 2020 #BlackLivesMatter protests, Hardison is depicted mentoring young Black designers who aim to build their brands in response to the movement. Zooming on her iPad with American designer Tracy Reese and an array of young Black creatives, she counts their success as redemption for George Floyd and others killed as a result of police brutality. “Nobody died in vain. They are sitting up there thinking, ‘Come on now, don’t let us down!’”

Here, I had to pause. Regardless of Hardison’s admirable ardor, do rising profits among budding Black designers do anything for those of George Floyd’s socioeconomic background? As Bertrand Cooper put it in his 2021 essay “Who Actually Gets to Create Black Pop Culture?,” “Black creators are being financially remunerated for the loss of Floyd’s life via the granting of opportunities to work within popular culture’s most prominent and lucrative spaces.” To Cooper, who was raised in poverty, “Floyd’s final suffering becomes a political currency for the many, [and] purchases opportunities for the Black middle- and upper-classes,” without doing much to address the ongoing reality of poverty, incarceration, and disenfranchisement among Black communities. In other words, gains among Black elites within the fashion industry may be symbolically buoying — perhaps especially for White consumers seeking to absolve themselves of racial guilt — but do little to actually help those in Floyd’s community or working-class Black people in general. 

The underlying message of Invisible Beauty — as in Cortés’s Little Richard doc — is that Black excellence within the arts can play a substantive role in achieving greater racial equality. As tempting an idea as that is to embrace, it also feels too easy. As art critic Seph Rodney said in a 2016 Hyperallergic piece commenting on Beyoncé’s Superbowl performance, “The issue with this hope [of pop cultural liberation] … is that it ignores its own internal contradictions: I mean how spiritual is it to aspire to wear Givenchy, and is that what people should be ambitious about?” 

While I don’t seek to dismiss Hardison’s courage or legacy, Invisible Beauty’s valedictory tone leaves me ambivalent at times. Although the efforts of this beautiful, tenacious Black woman have paved the way for racial progress in the United States, it is progress that, sadly, seems much more realized for the upper classes (not incidentally, those most exposed to high fashion), and not for the majority of Black citizens, and indeed much of the country’s low-income and working-class population, particularly people of color. Hardison may have very well “switched it up” in the fashion world, but millions are still waiting — and toiling — to “break free.” 

The 1992 Black Girls Coalition Press Conference, from Invisible Beauty, a Magnolia Pictures release (© Keith Majors, photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures)

Invisible Beauty is currently in theaters.

Eileen G’Sell is a poet and critic with recent contributions to Jacobin, Poetry, The Baffler, and The Hopkins Review. Her second volume of poetry, Francofilaments, is forthcoming from Broken Sleep Books....