André Leon Talley: a name that has dominated fashion for over 40 years is examined in Kate Novack‘s documentary, The Gospel According to Andre.
Talley, a tall rotund black man fills up the screen. He’s infectious, engaging, and brilliant. You could leave a camera on him for 8 hours and he’d probably give you 7 hours worth of usable content. Multi-lingual, an expert in Russian lit, and the Editor of Vogue. As many of the talking heads point out, Talley is a mass of the unexpected. He’s a charismatic black homosexual southerner, born in Durham, North Carolina. And North Carolina doesn’t exactly scream, “Versace!”
In a moment when the south was segregated, Talley rose from his confines. Often he paints his background and southern family in regal luster, especially his grandmother. Much of it is pride, pride in his roots. Though he’s lived in New York and Paris, he still files an absentee ballot for his native North Carolina. However, the fraught background of the Jim Crow South is often left in the background. These instances are missed opportunities. Though Novack later coerces Talley to speak about some workplace discrimination, it’s an ever brief detail and a too-short come down for a personality who’s always in the clouds.
The mass of surprising traits do not end at his origins either. Talley is highly intelligent, graduating from an Ivy League School: Brown University. He’s well-read, has an immense talent for recall, and is fluent in French. There’s nothing in Talley’s race that says he can’t be all those things, unless you buy into bygone stereotypes. Still, even if one doesn’t confide themselves to that dark closet, he is still a marvel. A black kid from the South, during the height of segregation: first, going to an Ivy League School, then learning French. Novak is right to highlight what a bold achievement, probably more than any fashion observation Talley’s ever made, doing the above is/was.
However, Novak—like the issue of racism above—appears timid to broach certain subjects. It’s understandable, Talley is intimidating. Not necessarily because he appears vindictive or acidic (he doesn’t), he just has a jovial overshadowing personality. This causes us to skate past several areas of his life. We know Talley is deeply religious. We also know that he’s homosexual. As an African American, I’m aware that religious and church-going blacks have mostly been slow in accepting those of different orientations. It appeared odd to me that for a film called The Gospel According to Andre, that the subject of his sexuality in relation to his religion was only briefly touched upon (as his mother didn’t want to be seen with him when entering church).
I also found it odd that much of the documentary focuses on the 2016 election, as Talley is deathly nervous about the results, yet we’re never offered his political thoughts. Instead, we jump to him giving fashion advice to one of his friends.
And though his weight is a touchy subject (we do see a glimpse of him attempting to eat healthier), it feels like a head-scratching miss not to get him on the record about it. Not to probe. Not to follow-up. Not to, you know, learn about your subject.
A gospel is a teaching, but what is Talley or the documentary teaching us about him? The Gospel According to Andre enlightens us very little about André. Yes, we find that Talley believes in living life to the fullest and we receive biographical notes. Yet, as much encyclopedia knowledge as he possesses, we’re rarely privy to it (except in old camera footage). As I pointed out earlier, Talley is the kind of the figure that’s intimidating to approach, but easy to film. And it appears the camera was left rolling with little direction other than to let Talley speak.
The Gospel According to Andre, unfortunately, is one of those documentaries where you’ll gasp at the names on camera: Tom Ford, Whoopi Goldberg, Anna Wintour, Fran Lebowitz, etc, but you’ll find that they have more substance to say when prodded than the subject has to say about himself. It’s a disappointing result for a man as incredible as André Leon Talley.