In June 1982, film scholar Richard Dyer published a two-page essay on African-American star Diana Ross in the journal Marxism Today. Part of Dyer’s essay focuses on the American conception of success and specifically on how Ross is one of the few black artists who has been “allowed” to be such a success. The first half of this audiovisual essay applies Dyer’s text not to the “real” Diana Ross but to the fictional character she portrays in the star vehicle Mahogany (Berry Gordy, 1975), thereby showing how the onscreen performance and the off-screen persona are intertwined. The second half of the audiovisual essay aims to raise the question (rather than providing a definite answer) whether or not, three decades later, Dyer’s text could be applicable to African-American superstar Beyoncé Knowles.
In Mahogany, Diana Ross plays Tracy, a young black woman from the Chicago South Side who “escapes the ghetto” to Rome, where she is turned into supermodel Mahogany and then becomes a successful fashion designer. However, as the movie’s tagline reads, “Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with,” and thus she returns home to her boyfriend Brian (Billy Dee Williams). Miriam Thaggert has suggested that by having Tracy return to Chicago, “the film cannot envision ‘Diana Ross’s dream come true’ – of being successful” (2012: 734), but that is exactly what the film does: it is not Tracy who returns home, but Mahogany, who is a success in the world of fashion and who shapes the Diana Ross star image. This is why Gerald Early has called Mahogany “a brilliant film” – not for its cinematic qualities but because the film succeeds “to mythify Ross herself as dramatizing the dilemma of crossover success” (2004: 121-122). The movie’s key scene is the almost four-minutes-long montage sequence (also discussed by Jane Gaines in her well-known 1988 Screen article) showing how Tracy is turned into supermodel Mahogany, with the instrumental “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” as score. In a second essay, Richard Dyer argues that this montage sequence provides a “magical resolution of the irresolvable,” in which issues of race, gender, and class are “resolved” through the star performance; whether or not Mahogany succeeds “depends a lot on how much you go for Diana Ross and sensuous montage” (Dyer 1986: 136-137).
The audiovisual essay opens with dialogue from the film, in which Mahogany introduces “success” as the main topic, followed by a 1975 Paramount radio promo that explicitly states, “Mahogany is Diana Ross and Diana Ross is Mahogany.” All images during the first 30 seconds are taken from Mahogany scenes other than the montage sequence, edited with straight cuts rather than dissolves. Once Dyer’s 1982 text is introduced, all images are taken from the montage sequence with a looped 15-second sample from the instrumental “Theme From Mahogany” as soundtrack. The “sensuous montage” is enhanced by the extensive use of dissolves. In the second half of the audiovisual essay, Diana Ross is literally replaced by Beyoncé, both in Dyer’s text as well as in the images, which are taken from two different sources. The first is the Vogue photo-shoot scene (modelled after the Mahogany montage sequence) from Dreamgirls (Bill Condon, 2006), in which Beyoncé stars as the Ross-inspired fictional character Deena Jones. The second source is a promotional video of the 2011 “African Queen” photo-shoot Beyoncé did for the French fashion magazine L’Officiel Paris (February 2011), best known for the controversial “blackface” poses. The “real” Beyoncé in Paris is remarkably similar to the fictional Mahogany in Rome.
The audiovisual essay’s grand finale merges the star images of the Diana Ross and Beyoncé (as well as the fictional characters Mahogany and Deena Jones), thereby foregrounding the historical continuity in African-American female superstardom and showing how star images can travel over time, informing each other through “real” and fictional personas. The “Theme From Mahogany” bombastic soundtrack is taken from the film score (originally playing over Mahogany’s end credits). Most striking in this segment is the similar way that both Mahogany and Beyoncé are presented as Cleopatra-styled “African Queens.” As Jane Gaines has argued in her discussion of the Mahogany montage sequence: “As her body colour is powdered over or washed out in bright light, and as her long-haired wigs blow around her face, [Tracy] becomes suddenly ‘white’,” meaning that “Tracy becomes Mahogany, acquiring the darkness, richness and value the name connotes; that is, her blackness becomes commodified’ (Gaines 1988: 18-19). The Cleopatra image as dominant trope of black women’s representation in fashion photography makes this commodification obviously visible.
Although not part of the original source material, I have added footage of the 2014 HBO special On The Run Tour: Beyoncé and Jay Z, because it is such a blatant celebration of American (note Beyoncé’s dress) success, emphasized by Jay Z’s exclamation “We did it!” This explicit inclusion of Jay Z in the celebration of black female success can be placed in juxtaposition to the story of Mahogany, in which Mahogany is “punished” for her success by being left behind by her boyfriend Brian, who recites the movie’s tagline “Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with.” Moreover, as Jane Gaines has pointed out, Brian, as the black male protagonist, is explicitly excluded from success (Gaines 1988: 20-21). In stark contrast, not only is Beyoncé celebrated for her success, but Jay Z is also included in the celebration. It is tempting to perceive this as a sign of progress, moving from the post-civil rights era of Diana Ross to the current, allegedly post-racial era of Beyoncé. A four-minute audiovisual essay obviously cannot fully explore the ideological issues of race, gender, and class that these performances by Ross and Beyoncé bring forward. With this audiovisual essay, however, I aim to emphasize the continuity in the representation of African-American female superstardom. In the forthcoming essay “Whitewashing the Dreamgirls: Beyoncé, Diana Ross, and the Commodification of Blackness,” to be published in Revisiting Star Studies, edited by Sabrina Q. Yu and Guy Austin, I discuss the connections between the star images of Diana Ross and Beyoncé in more detail.
This video was produced out of the “Scholarship in Sound and Image” workshop at Middlebury College, June 2015, as funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Dyer, Richard (1982), ‘Diana Ross’, Marxism Today, pp. 36-37.
Dyer, Richard (1986), ‘Mahogany’, in Charlotte Brundson (ed.), Films for Women, London: BFI Publishing, pp. 131-137.
Early, Gerald (2004), One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture (revised and expanded edition), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Gaines, Jane (1988), ‘White Privilege and Looking Relations: Race and Gender in Feminist Film Theory’, Screen 29:4, pp. 12-27.
Kooijman, Jaap (forthcoming in 2016), ‘Whitewashing the Dreamgirls: Beyoncé, Diana Ross, and the Commodification of Blackness’, in Sabrina Q. Yu and Guy Austin (editors), Revisiting Star Studies: Cultures, Themes and Methods, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Thaggert, Miriam (2012), ‘Marriage, Moynihan, Mahogany: Success and the Post-Civil Rights Black Female Professional in Film’, American Quarterly 64:4, pp. 715-740.