“The Gospel According to André” is a delightful introduction to André Leon Talley, an openly gay African-American man who has been a fixture in the international fashion world since 1974. Directed by Kate Novack, the film explores his life and career from his childhood in the segregated South through his despair at the election of Donald Trump.
Talley, named one of Out magazine’s “50 Most Powerful Gay Men and Women in America” in 2007, was born in Washington, D.C. in 1949, but was raised by his grandmother in Durham, N.C. Although she worked as a cleaning lady at Duke University, Talley credits her with instilling an “understanding of luxury” in him. As he describes in the movie, his grandmother took him to church every Sunday where he delightfully observed the church ladies and their fabulous hats. She also introduced him to Vogue magazine.
Talley reveals that his introduction to fashion also reinforced his understanding of the power of racism in the Jim Crow South. On one of his trips to Duke to buy the latest copy of Vogue, he was attacked by students who threw rocks at him. He also learned that black women, unlike white women, were forced to put on veils before they tried on hats at local department stores.
Talley’s wonderful stories are the core of this enjoyable documentary and Novack captures the raconteur at his most entertaining. Towering over everyone else (he’s 6’6”) and swathed in glorious caftans, Talley uses dramatic gestures and every note in his mellifluous voice.
In addition to astounding archival material, Novack also uses the voices of Talley’s friends and acquaintances to sketch out his life. Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine, says that she hired Talley because he was the only person who know more about the history of fashion that she did. Fran Lebowitz and Eboni Marshall Turman of Yale University Divinity School help to put his life in a broader cultural context.
Most importantly, we see Talley with his friends Tamron Hall (from MSNBC) and Maureen Dowd (from the New York Times). Talley, an ardent supporter of Barack Obama (he introduced Michelle to designer Jason Wu who created her inaugural gown), designed the gown that his friend wore to the final state dinner at the Obama White House. Observing her final fitting is both inspirational and deeply poignant.
Equally moving is Talley’s performance during President Trump’s Inauguration. He and Dowd live-tweet the event. Their coverage begins with Talley’s light-hearted defense of Melania Trump’s gown but ends with Talley showing his deep despair.
Novack astutely uses the election of 2016 to frame the documentary. This device gives the film a forward momentum and a sense of melancholy that supports his philosophical reflections on his life, especially when he reveals that he has never been in love.
Novack also wisely avoids a chronological approach. She lightly weaves her subject’s stories around loose themes, but still catches the highlights of his long career: his childhood (which he compares to Truman Capote’s “Christmas Memory,”) his writing for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and the nights at Studio 54; his work with his beloved mentor Diana Vreeland; his tenure as the Fashion News Director at Vogue; and his radio show on Sirius XM.
Unfortunately, Novack doesn’t spend much time talking explicitly about the complicated role of race in the fashion industry. Novack does discuss Talley’s work on the provocative “Scarlett N’ The Hood” spread for Vanity Fair (Naomi Campbell appeared as Scarlett with white designers playing her servants), but she doesn’t really discuss Talley’s work promoting black models and designers. Talley also remembers being called “Queen Kong,” but Novack doesn’t really discuss how racism and homophobia impacted his career.
More noticeably, the movie does not mention the AIDS epidemic and its horrific toll on the fashion industry. This is a serious omission which sadly reduces the film to a breezy overview of Talley’s life in the fashion industry instead of a serious examination of his legendary impact on American culture.