If you’ve ever doubted that one person really can make a difference when it comes to systemic change, just spend two hours getting to know Black model/1970s fashion icon/activist Bethann Hardison via the thoroughly engaging documentary Invisible Beauty. Though, fair warning: Her passion, drive, and relentless activism may leave you feeling somewhat inadequate about your own internal drive by the time the credits roll.
Hardison is the very definition of a “can do” person. A born mover, shaker, and change-maker, she’s like a stylish shark: She never stops moving (and she always looks good). As the film chronicles her life from her Brooklyn childhood to her runway work in the late 1960s and ’70s to her influential role as a modeling agent for the likes of Tyra Banks and Tyson Beckford, it paints a portrait of a woman who’s never been satisfied to accept things at face value, especially when it comes to (the lack of) diversity in high fashion.
The movie explains how, after a relatively brief surge of interest in using models of color in the 1970s (thanks in no small part to Hardison’s influence), major fashion labels skewed lily white again after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 led to a flood of Eastern European/Russian modeling talent. In what almost feels like a documentary within the documentary, we learn in detail about how Hardison and fellow Black runway veterans like Iman have worked methodically and purposefully since the late ’80s to diversify the runways, the ad campaigns, and the magazine covers that define the fashion industry.
While the movie’s interviewees are quick to praise Hardison as an icon, an activist, and a caring mentor, Invisible Beauty (which, it should be noted, Hardison herself co-wrote and directed) doesn’t present her as perfect. Her son, actor Kadeem Hardison, makes it clear that their relationship has always been complicated, and it’s easy to see that Hardison’s need for constant movement and stimulation has been a source of unrest in her personal life. But as she reflects on that life and where it has brought her, it’s hard to argue that the trade-offs she may have made along the way weren’t worth it.– Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Sherin Nicole When supermodel Iman calls Bethann Hardison her “Statue of Liberty”—the one who welcomed the young Somalian beauty to the fashion industry and to America—you sense how monumental that is. Directed by Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng, Invisible Beauty is the Richter scale of a life of impact. First as an early Black fashion model, then as a design assistant and muse. Ultimately on to build a modeling agency that launched many of the Black superheroes of the runways. Need proof? I present exhibits A–F: Naomi Campbell, Iman, Veronica Webb, Roshumba, Beverly Peele, and Tyson Beckford (but there are more). The agency was Bethann Management and through it, Hardison changed the trajectory of the beauty industry with the proclamation: BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL. It wasn’t easy. Every time fashion pushed back Bethann Hardison pushed forward. She is an activist and fashion is her protest sign. Invisible Beauty is the inflight movie for that journey. It provokes because it is forthright and uncompromising, but it inspires in conversations with icons like Zendaya, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Fran Lebowitz. Bethann Hardison isn’t just a landmark in American fashion & beauty; her impact is seismic. Invisible Beauty wants you to know that.
Loren King Invisible Beauty belongs among the great fashion documentaries of recent years. Like Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel and The Gospel According to André about André Leon Talley, Invisible Beauty profiles a fashion insider who is also an outsider. Trailblazer, innovator, activist and all around legend Bethann Hardison co-directs this look at her life and career with Frédéric Tcheng (Halston, “Dior and I). But it’s no vanity project. Candid, thoughtful and reflective, the film is much like the memoir that Hardison is writing throughout the film. Read full review.
Leslie Combemale I just loved this movie, and I’m struck by two things in particular in Invisible Beauty. One is something we’ve seen with the racist backlash after having Obama as the first Black president. The film shows, though Hardinson changed the industry as top Black model and agency owner, there’s been a repeated cycle, over and over, of designers not hiring Black models. It’s something that Bethann, as an activist and industry insider, is determined to change. The other is, as complicated as her life has been, she has a bone-deep way she clearly knows herself. That is as inspiring as her groundbreaking experiences and role as an agent of change in the world.
Jennifer Merin Invisible Beauty is a thoroughly engaging autobiography documentary by and about Bethann Hardison, the Black fashion model, modeling agency owner and activist who challenged racist attitudes and practices in the fashion industry and changed ‘the look’ of runway shows, magazine spreads and other platforms for fashion marketing. Read full review
Sandie Angulo Chen: Invisible Beauty is a riveting biographical documentary about pioneering Black fashion model, agent, and activist Bethann Hardison. Directed by Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng, the film interviews a host of her contemporaries, proteges, friends, and followers, as well as her only son, actor Kadeem Hardison (A Different World) to chronicle Bethann’s unlikely rise to fame at a time when fashion and modeling were overwhelmingly White. While perhaps not as much a household name as friend and fellow (younger) Black models Iman and Naomi Campbell, the documentary reveals her legendary contributions to diversifying the fashion industry. A powerful film about a woman who always knew her worth.
Nikki Fowler: Invisible Beauty is a love letter to Black women and to the icon who is model, fashion industry veteran and activist Bethann Hardison. For anyone who knows the legacy and evolution of Black women in fashion and runway casting into the 90s. knows of the trials and tribulations that went into creating and sustaining legendary names such as Naomi Campbell, Tyson Beckford, Tyra Banks, Cynthia Bailey and Iman in a racially hostile industry, and will easily understand the importance of this documentary written and directed by Hardison herself. Read full review.
Liz Whittemore The world’s first black prominent model and activist, Bethann Hardison, is a cultural catalyst. She has infectious energy beaming in every direction, whether she’s being interviewed, leading discussions, or writing her book. The film is an organic array of who Hardison is at her core. It’s a history lesson and an industry education. She is fearless, unfiltered, and unapologetically brilliant. Her goal-oriented attitude made her a star and pushed those in her stratosphere to excel, reminding them to shake up the status quo. Her career shifted from model to agent and activist. Although her honesty can be cutting to those closest to her, Bethann guides her proteges in the best ways she knows how. She knows how to influence for good and loves hard. In an industry rampant with institutional racism, 2007 saw her return to the modeling world to face things head-on. The film utilizes a massive amount of archival footage in black and white. It is a striking visual serving as a classic editorial look and subconscious social commentary. Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng craft a revealing and intimate documentary. Bethann remains a force of nature, never content with any single aspect of success. The work continues. Summing up her life in one concise motto, “If you’re gonna go to the circus, get on the rides.”
Cate Marquis In Invisible Beauty, we meet Bethann Hardison, a groundbreaking Black woman who felled barriers and transformed the fashion world, first as the first Black fashion model superstar, and then as the owner of a modeling agency featuring diverse models, not just black and white but racially mixed. As if that was not enough, she then went on to become an outspoken advocate for racial inclusion. While fashionistas may know her name, the rest of us will more likely recognize the names of some of her clients and friends, including Naomi Campbell and Iman. Now in her 80s, the still-unstoppable Bethann recounts her incredible story in this engrossing documentary.
Title: Invisible Beauty
Directors: Bethann Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng
Release Date: September 15, 2023
Running Time: 115 minutes
Screenwriters: Bethann Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng (Documentary)
Distribution Company: Magnolia Pictures
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Nikki Fowler, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore
Edited by Jennifer Merin