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Toronto Film Festival

Grace Jones, Andre Leon Talley and a chance to see people of color in all your movies

Day 2 at the Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO — For a person of color, looking for yourself in major box office releases can feel like a frustrating series of one-offs, each with impossibly high stakes. Film festivals can offer a different experience, especially since there’s no box office pressure at them.

One of my favorite things about film festivals is the way they create a temporary, friendly, idealistic, artistic bubble. The audiences, Blackstar and other minority-centered fests notwithstanding, can be overwhelmingly white, and their reactions can offer a skewed perception of films. (See Dope and The Birth of a Nation, both of which were Sundance darlings that didn’t live up to box office expectations. Crown Heights found itself in a similar position.)

But festivals also offer a great opportunity for people to see film after film starring or about people of color. The first time I went to Sundance, I was astonished to see multiple feature films by or about Native Americans. This year, Columbus and Gook, both from Asian directors, made big splashes at Sundance.

So on Friday morning, a day after seeing Mudbound and The Carter Effect, I found myself immersed in the world of fashionable, brilliant black people with screenings of two documentaries: Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami and The Gospel According to André.

The similarities in these two people seem obvious at first glance. Jones is 69 and Andre Leon Talley is 67, and they’ve both established careers in fashion by being intriguing, unique individuals who are impossible to ignore.

But something deeper and more soul-stirring connects these two individuals to many black people of their generation. Jones and Talley both soared to tremendous heights, Jones as a model and singer and Talley as a Vogue editor and arbiter of taste in the fashion world. As they’ve reached the top, they’ve taken the pain of their earlier lives with them. Sometimes it’s creative fuel, but in one way or another, everyone has to wrestle with the demons of their younger selves.

For Jones, it was the cruelty of the man who raised her, simply referred to as Mas P, who terrorized Jones and her siblings with beatings and offered scant gestures of love. Jones became notorious for her temper after she slapped television host Russell Harty live on the air in November 1980.

Jones is up front about her penchant for striking people. “I always warn them first,” she says.

In Bloodlight, directed by Sophie Fiennes, Jones says that she struggled to channel her anger as an adult. Rather than talk to a therapist, Jones worked through her anger in one-on-one acting classes and revealed that her acting coach would have to hypnotize her to draw her out of her uncontrolled fury.

Fiennes captures footage of Jones visiting family and friends in her native Jamaica, and it feels like the audience discovered a decoder ring for the woman behind images such as the Jean-Paul Goude photograph that graced the cover of Island Life.

Jones tells her origin story through her song lyrics. She bounces all over the globe, code-switching from Jamaican patois to accented English to perfect French. But everything comes back to Jamaica. Frankly, Bloodlight and Bami is an unstructured mess, but it does a fair job of contextualizing Jones’ art through her Jamaican roots. The things and the place that are a source of so much of her anger still fill her with joy, love and artistic inspiration. She’s not just a curiosity — everything she does, everything she wears, including her extravagant performance headdresses, has a purpose and an origin. We see Jones bring her mother a hat that’s a variation on one she wears onstage. On Jones, coupled with a black velvet leotard, makeup and 6-inch heels, the hat is an avant-garde statement. On her mother, offset with flowers and a church dress, it’s a crown fit for sharing a rendition of “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”

Bloodlight and Bami does not yet have a distributor, though I suspect it will find one, if the masses lined up for a glimpse of Jones at the Thursday night premiere of the film are any indication.

The Gospel According to André

As black people, Jones and Talley came of age at a time that allowed them to take advantage of the tremendous changes taking place in the world. The documentaries about them aren’t just about the costs of being trailblazers. They’re more personal than that. Instead, they’re about the traumas people carry with them, and the way they infect and influence those around them.

André Leon Talley

Maarten de Boer/Getty Images

With Talley especially, it became apparent just how much his blackness was a part of that trauma, and how much he’s held it in service to a bigger vision. As a Vogue staffer responsible for assembling and conceiving fashion editorials, Talley had the rare power to make something like Scarlett in the Hood happen. Scarlett in the Hood was a magazine spread that offered Talley’s commentary on Gone with the Wind. Talley selected Naomi Campbell to play Scarlett O’Hara, and he placed white designers around her dressed and cast as slaves. The price for being in a position to do that, however, was that Talley had to keep mum about the microaggressions directed at him by the industry he loved.

The hurt Talley carries from having stones thrown at him by white boys when he would visit Duke University’s east campus as a teen, simply to buy the latest issue of Vogue, is the same hurt he carries from colleagues in the fashion industry accusing him of sleeping with every designer in Paris and playing the role of black buck for curious whites. Talley tears up at one point, recalling a colleague he was too much of a class act to name, who cruelly referred to him as “Queen Kong.”

Over and over, fashion industry figures such as Marc Jacobs, Valentino and Tom Ford remarked to director Kate Novack about Talley’s “childlike” qualities. The takeaway from all of them was that the intangible that makes Talley such a talented curator stems directly from the same wonderment he felt as a teen flipping through the pages of Vogue. Somehow, even as an adult, he kept it. For Talley, who grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and attended the segregated Hillside High School, Vogue offered an escape from that reality. His talent and his hurt are inextricably linked.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is a senior writer covering arts, entertainment and culture for The Undefeated. Christopher Eccleston is her favorite Doctor Who.