While Invisible Beauty could have done more with its premise, the documentary shares an important story with its audience.
As Invisible Beauty begins, we hear former model, advocate, and modelling agency founder Bethann Hardison say, “I am not trying to help Black people. I am trying to educate white people.” And this is exactly what the documentary wants to do: teach us about the structural racism in fashion and Bethann’s lifelong commitment to diversifying the industry. This results in an informative product that can make its viewers learn a lot about the modelling and fashion industry and its history, especially for those in the audience that were not familiar with it, or with Bethann, before watching the movie. While this is certainly interesting, it does hurt the emotional side of the film, which I sometimes felt was lacking.
Bethann Hardison is an American model who later became a modelling agent and activist, leading a revolutionary change in her sector. Throughout her life, Bethann became a symbol and catalyst for change in the fashion industry. Invisible Beauty follows Bethann throughout her life, from the very beginning, when she established herself as one of the first high-profile black models in the 1970s, until now. The film’s focus, just like that of Bethann’s own life, is predominantly on her work as an activist.
Invisible Beauty seems to somewhat address the process of filmmaking as well. The film literally opens with co-directors Bethann Hardison and Frédéric Tcheng asking each other how the film should begin, thus drawing attention to the documentary medium itself. This is quite a fascinating choice, as it roots the film into reality, reminding us that the people we are seeing interviewed on screen are real people who face these struggles in their daily life. As it spans so many years, the documentary finds a clever way to still show on screen the events Bethann talks about by using old black-and-white photos and audio archival footage, which I particularly enjoyed.
Most significantly, Invisible Beauty gives its very subject, Bethann Hardison, a chance to be in charge of her own narrative, as she co-directed the documentary. This is particularly interesting because it is something Bethann strived to do for her whole life with the fight for Black representation in her industry. While the documentary does not touch on this, her authorship over her story also made me think about how rare this is for models, who often pose in front of the camera for someone or something else, without necessarily having too much control of their own image.
I also wish the documentary had gone that one step further in involving the world around fashion as well. One of my favourite moments in Invisible Beauty is when Bethann talks about her commitment to activism, saying that fashion is just the tool she happened to have at her disposal in order to change everyone’s vision on a larger scale. But the bigger picture is only hinted at throughout the film, and never really addressed further. There were various instances when Bethann’s reflection on activism and fight for equality could have tied in nicely with the current political situation, but Invisible Beauty does not explore that, except when it features a few shots of the Black Lives Matter protest in response to George Floyd’s murder in 2020.
Throughout the film, I kept feeling like the documentary brought the attention back to the fashion industry and its key players too quickly and too narrowly, going back to the same questions and topics over and over. Ultimately, Invisible Beauty works really well as an educational film and as a call for change, but it could have done more with its subject matter. Perhaps it is a matter of playing it too safe, but Invisible Beauty feels too self-contained with its confined focus on the fashion industry. The film could have delved deeper into a commentary on Bethann’s, and other models’, ownership and control over their own image, but it does not quite go that far. Despite its flaws, Invisible Beauty is still a fascinating film because of the analysis and reflection on its meaningful subject matter.
Invisible Beauty was screened at the Sundance Film Festival London, taking place on 6-9 July at the Picturehouse Central in London. The film will be released theatrically in New York on September 15, in LA on September 22, and in additional theaters on September 29, 2023.