It’s depressing to realize that a whole lot of non-fiction films in the next few years will be framed in one way or another by Donald Trump’s presidency, whether or not they’re specifically about or exploring politics. Such is the case with “The Gospel According to André,” a movie ostensibly profiling fashion journalism luminary André Leon Talley.
Through his eyes, we’re forced to rewatch the dispiriting build-up to the 2016 election — though, thankfully, Talley remains available (and wildly entertaining) to documentarian Kate Novack (“Eat This New York”) despite promises to the contrary after Trump wins.
In spite (or possibly because) of that context, an especially loving, reflective portrait of an African-American from the Jim Crow-era South who becomes one of the notoriously white fashion world’s great witnesses, “Gospel” chronicles singular creativity and skill gravitating to its perfect field, and one extraordinary man’s evolution into an institution unto himself.
Juxtaposing the former Vogue Editor-At-Large’s current life in White Plains, New York, with his upbringing in Durham, North Carolina, “Gospel” provides a biography of Talley, a young man raised by his grandmother to develop “an understanding of luxury,” filtered through racial segregation and extreme poverty. “It’s a moral code to dress well,” he insists, inspired at a young age to present himself with class and distinction by the “fashion show” and affirmation of black life that his local Sunday church service provided.
As he fits Tamron Hall in a dress for the Obama State Dinner in 2016, Talley reflects on the journey that took him to Brown University, and eventually, Paris, where his Master’s Degree in French Literature endeared him to Yves St. Laurent and other designers to whom he could quite literally speak in their own language.
A tall, urbane, fearlessly flamboyant presence, Talley soon attracts a series of important champions, including Vogue Editor-in-Chief Diana Vreeland, designer Karl Lagerfeld and others who recognized his skill and insight as a writer and commentator, helping catapult him into the fashion world’s upper echelon. He shows a rare moment of vulnerability later in the film when recalling the accusations that he’d slept with Vreeland or others, racially coded “jokes” or comments that cut deeply in a world largely populated by upper-class whites.
Meanwhile, the movie addresses his homosexuality in a decidedly chaste and wistful way; though he’s open about it, you get the sense from the movie it’s less important to his identity than the color of his skin, and it’s left to a confidante to observe that he possibly “missed his window” with regard to finding a longtime partner.
But what emerges in the film is a moving portrait of a person’s natural talents — his unerring eye, his erudite and passionate outlook — falling into perfect lockstep with a vocation that utilizes them to their greatest effect. There are so many stories, both real and imagined, of individuals with special gifts who never find the right place or time to share them, and it’s clear from Talley’s back story that his life drove him towards the success he achieved, and he embraced and maximized it beyond any expectations.
Interspersed with footage of his encounters with fashion luminaries and celebrities are segments about pictorials in Vogue and elsewhere that he used as an opportunity to bring more faces of color to their too often lily-white pages, and scenes where he revisits not only his grandmother’s house, which he bought and restored, but the cities, towns and people who were an indelible part of his upbringing.
Many of the celebrity faces audiences will see in “Gospel” are probably more likely to resonate with followers of the fashion industry, but there are a handful of colorful cameos; if you ever wanted to see Isabella Rossellini petting a pig, for example, this is the film for you. That said, it’s his closest friends and relatives who offer the loveliest and most honest details about the documentary’s subject.
Ultimately this intimate, affectionate biography underscores an essential truth about the fashion industry, Talley’s work, and the life that he built out of what might seem like the unlikeliest circumstances: “Fashion is fleeting. Style remains.”
“The Gospel According to André” doesn’t require a Master’s Degree in design to follow it, but whether you’re the son of a taxi driver or on the invite shortlist for Anna Wintour’s annual Met Gala, Talley reminds us not only how important those gatekeepers can be, but also that when they’re truly special, they can make a greater and more lasting impression than the world they’re leading us through.