There should be a trigger warning for documentaries that incorporate footage from the 2016 presidential election. As I was watching Kate Novack’s The Gospel According to André, a thoughtful meditation on the life and career of fashion guru André Leon Talley, I realized that the present-day threads of its story would be following the election via Talley’s obsession with 24-hour news. And, oh, what an initial disappointment that revelation was.
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By the time the film got up to November 6 and Talley began claiming that he would disappear into the woods for weeks if Donald Trump were elected, my nerves were shot. It’s not easy reliving those days. At first I felt pity for Novack that so much of her footage happened to revolve around that horror show and thus must make its way into the film. But the longer I considered the undertones of race and class throughout the documentary, the more I understood that electoral story structure only makes more urgent the struggles Talley keeps private: his experience as a queer, black, Southern working-class man who became one of the most revered haute-couture editors in the business.
Novack often fills up the screen with archival videos and photographs of striking fashions adorning women who strut and saunter down runways. This archival footage is accompanied by old commentary from Talley, who’s a fave interview subject at these events, as his excitement over every piece of fabric or texture is contagious. In both the archives and in Novack’s footage, Talley appears so fully himself in every one of his garishly fascinating caftans that it’s difficult not to admire him or the endless knowledge of history and design (specifically Russian) he can spout on cue. But Novack’s film is about more than fashion.
In the early parts of the present-time story, Barack Obama is president, and Talley is his boisterous, big self, seeming to exude hope even when he relays stories of the Jim Crow South, like the one about how the black women in Durham, North Carolina, would go to the Jo Belle hat shop and have to drape veils over their heads to protect the merchandise from their hair. He’s got a future-forward outlook, seeing that time firmly in the past. But as Novack cycles through interview subjects — Diane von Furstenberg, Anna Wintour, Marc Jacobs, Tom Ford, Fran Lebowitz — it becomes clear that much of the world he immersed himself in is still starkly white. Novack only shows us Talley talking about race or class with his non-fashion friends, like journalist Tamron Hall. These friends are from a younger generation and maybe more versed in being outspoken about racism. But Talley, who went to an all-black high school that taught him that the best revenge was to become successful, prefers not to address it head-on, at least not on camera.
So when election day rolls around and all of Talley’s hopes are dashed, it does suddenly seem as though Novack catches him at a moment when he’s too overcome by emotion to maintain his composed facade. He speaks frankly about the racially charged slights that have stuck with him over the years. As he thumbs through an old issue of Vogue containing a Naomi Campbell spread he edited, fashioned as an African-American version of Gone With the Wind, his eyes well up. The Talley of before the election presents himself as a man who believes anything is possible if you swallow your anger, work hard enough and sacrifice all — especially your chance at love — and the Talley of after seems to worry that much of that progress has proved an illusion.