SLF 2023: ‘Invisible Beauty’ Review: Perfectionist, Activist, Mother, Model, Icon

Bethann Hardison co-directs her own story in this documentary about the iconic fashion designer. The film opens with her writing her untitled memoirs whilst in conversation with her co-director Frédéric Tcheng about how to start the movie. The film establishes its idiosyncrasies early on. From there we explore her career from model to modelling agent to activist, featuring archival footage, original interviews and incredibly intimate footage of Hardison reflecting on her life. Stylistically the film invokes the rich history of modelling and fashion that Hardison has shaped.

A documentary must never simply relay facts. It’s all about finding context and deeper truths in the subject. Through frank discussions about her life, Hardison is able to communicate humbling truths about her life, especially regarding her son whom she raised very strictly. Sometimes the candour with which Hardison and her son talk about their relationship can be uncomfortable, but it’s a great insight into the mindset of high achievers and pushy parents. Hardison talks earnestly about lacking a mentor figure in her own life, and the loneliness and lack of purpose she has sometimes experienced.

Dour footage of Hardison in her New York apartment attempting to write her memoir in bed offer an endearing contrast to the incredibly glamorous image she has cultivated in her professional life. We get a vibrant sense of the life she continues to live in the fashion industry as the film captures some of her greatest accomplishments in getting black beauty recognised and celebrated by the industry as a whole. The systems that existed to exploit and then marginalise black models were scathingly exposed in the film. Armies of emaciated and identical white models march robotically up and down the catwalk as narration explains the terrible facts of underrepresentation. The importance of this representation is argued very eloquently.

Impressively, the film does not shy away from the idea that the movement has outgrown her. Interviews with younger activists who want more than just black faces on magazine covers. Controlling the mechanisms of the modelling world, and celebrating different kinds of black bodies is to be the concern of the future. This is acknowledged without in any way trivialising Hardison’s contributions. Beyond ego, the film celebrates the impact of a powerful woman by tenderly documenting the lives she has affected. To have also gained such insight into the figure herself without holding any punches is an extraordinary feat.

Four Stars

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