With every step she took on the catwalk, Bethann Hardison broke new ground. She did it while strutting in Chester Weinberg’s A-line skirts across the private showrooms of Manhattan’s garment district, where clients believed her to be “out of line.” She did it while dazzling audience members in Versailles in 1973, where she showed Europeans that girls of color brought personality to the runway and were not just human clothes-hangers. She did it ferociously, defiantly, and as shown in the documentary Invisible Beauty, she did it without ever planning to.
Hardison never set out to become the first Black supermodel. In fact, the scope of her ambitions and how they were perceived by society wasn’t something she ever even thought about. And yet, in an industry that has perpetuated racist practices for as long as it’s existed, she became a screen onto which people projected their fears and hopes. “You always want to win,” establishes an interviewer we hear but can’t see. “I don’t want to lose,” she corrects him elegantly.
As a young girl, Hardison, who was born in Brooklyn but had roots in the South, learned that her country was split into unfair halves. While visiting her grandmother in the Jim Crow South she wondered why she was supposed to drink from different water fountains. In high school she didn’t understand why her Black classmates thought she was “doing white things” when she showed an interest in the arts. Bethann was just busy living her life. Although this could come off as a certain type of naivete, those who were looking closer knew Hardison was propelled by desire––she never understood why there were things she was “supposed” to do, think, or want. She merely followed her instinct.
Beauty, which she co-directed with Frédéric Tcheng (one of the greatest fashion filmmakers of our time), seems like an exercise in self-retrospective. Rather than a straightforward autobiography, the documentary offers Hardison the opportunity to, as she puts it, look back in order to go forward. With every scene one feels as if Hardison is finally given the opportunity to take in the magnitude of her life, making the film both a celebration and elegy-of-sorts.
What will happen when she’s gone is the question many of the subjects pose out-loud to the camera. A world without Hardison seems unimaginable––she’s become a superhero, or the heroine of a melancholy Western constantly being called back to do one last job, to fix one more problem. In 1984, when she opened the Bethann Management Agency, she became the first Black woman to own a modeling firm. In 1988, when she and Iman co-founded the Black Girls Coalition, she demanded the industry she so loved gave opportunities to Black models. Hardison served as a mentor to Naomi Campbell and Tyra Banks. Why, then, was she constantly being asked to prove something?
When the film begins we listen to Hardison and Tcheng talk about what the documentary will be, what purpose it will serve. The meta-awareness makes us feel privileged––we realize we’re basking in someone’s innermost thoughts. In literature this would be an inner monologue. In film it approximates the process of creation, the images from Hardison’s past and present coming together to suggest a future.
Although she is rightfully showered with praise by celebrities like Zendaya, Tracee Ellis Ross, Whoopi Goldberg, Ralph Lauren, and Tyson Beckford (whom she discovered), there is a lingering sadness hovering over. While watching it I constantly wondered: why does America demand and take so much from the people it’s oppressed most?
Two-thirds into the film, mostly told in the chronological order of Hardison’s life, we learn that in 2007, long after she’d retired from the runway, Hardison had to make a comeback to demand that fashion labels like Prada and Calvin Klein put Black girls in their shows. As a teenager who devoured issues of Vogue like they were fresh cookies, I remember noticing the lack of diversity in fashion spreads. I also remember the shift that occurred at the start of my 20s when models (e.g. Liya Kebede) began appearing on those pages more often. I’m grateful to know it was all because of Hardison; my heart ached upon realizing that if it wasn’t for this film, I might never have.
Although Hardison is referred to as a model and activist, the latter label was practically forced onto her. She had to break new ground; no one else would have done it for her. There is much to celebrate in Invisible Beauty, but at a time when the rights of Black people continue being threatened all over the world––especially in the United States––how long will it take for heroes like Hardison to sit in their laurels and bask in the glory they’ve created despite the system? When will the ground offer them a place to rest, rather than some obstacle to fight?
Invisible Beauty makes its Tribeca Festival premiere on June 13.