Independence Films

by Avon Dorsey

During the past two weeks, I've been blessed to experience two, new motion pictures that connected with my soul; one evokes a spirit of righteousness and the other, a spirit of creativity.

With STYLE 101: I love to create, and I'm an advocate for equality... so it's no wonder that I urge everyone to go see the following films:

Passing Strange

Produced by: Steve Klein
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written by: Stew
Narrated by: Stew
Original Music by: Stew & Heidi Rodewald
Featuring: De'Adre Aziza, Daniel Breaker, and Eisa Davis
Length: 135 Minutes
Date of Release: August 21, 2009 (In limited theaters), August 26, 2009 (On Demand, Cable TV)

"What's inside is just a lie..." sings one of the actors in this enormously energetic film based on a musical. 'Inside', points to the film's idea that conformist ideals and propoganda are subconsciously instilled in us, e.g. how to act, who to like, what to become when you grow up, et al. The theme of confronting and questioning what you know to be true, or 'the real' (as the film eloquently puts it), seems to be the main artery of the story.

The film (directed by Spike Lee), follows a young, black man named "Youth" (played by Daniel Breaker), who is raised in Los Angeles, California, and wants to break away from his middle-class, Christian upbringing, so that he can pursue his dreams of becoming a rock star. His mother (played by Eisa Davis), disapproves but struggles to gain control over her son's life, as she herself is grappling with 'the real'. Loosely based on the life of Stew (the writer and narrator), the film opens on "Youth" and his mother heading out to a Sunday morning church service, which is mocked as nothing more than a 'baptist fashion show.' The criticism of church-goers putting more thought into their clothes rather than focusing on God, is an issue that most Black families are incoherent to- but as with most Spike Lee film's, his subject matter is always about what's touchy or taboo. Yet, what's most impactful about this scene is that as the son begrudginly sits in the church pews, he actually begins to feel some sort of spiritual awakening (read: the presence of God), but at the very moment he's moved, his mother slaps him out of his euphoric state, claiming that his behavior is embarrassing, causing others to stare. As Lee points out, it's an observation of how we're led to believe in certain things, yet after we've digested and saved -or regurgitated- that information, we find ourselves worrying too much about what others think.

As the film progresses, mother's house rules and nit-picking begin to prove too much for "Youth," he cannot stand anymore of the oppression from her or his 'ghetto' LA surroundings. After quitting the church choir and letting go of his heathen rock band, "Youth" moves out of the USA and onto Europe, first landing in Amsterdam and then settling in Berlin. It's in Amsterdam where "Youth's" eyes are opened and all that he felt was 'the real' had come to life, he meets a beautiful young woman (played by De'Adre Aziza), who fulfills all of his wildest dreams; she comforts and encourages his musical endeavors, opens his heart to love and frees the imagination that was once suppressed in LA. Not only has "Youth" found a lust-for-life while living in Europe, he is also reminded -by several of the film's characters- that no matter how far one roams away from home, the only thing that matters (or that is 'real'), is love and family, with the latter being most reprehensible to him.

Cinemagraphically, Lee captures a live, stage performance of Passing Strange (directed by Annie Dorsen), with cameras following the actors' every move, covering the entire stage, as they sing and dance. His footage feels organic and raw, and it strips nothing away from the original production of the stage play, in fact it adds more depth to an already vibrant painting. Lee's camera crews interact expertly with the actors, following them backstage (on break and between costume changes), filming overhead shots, up-close camera pans and frequent glimpses of the live audience that sat in attendance of the play; what happens on stage, er, in the film, can be described as movie magic shot in real-time.

At the film premiere in New York City, there was a Q&A session with the cast and the director (Lee was in attendance, but left just before the Q&A). The film's creator Stew, answered most of the audience questions, with the other cast members giving updates on what their next career move would be, in light of their recent success. The film's passage could be viewed as autobiographical in its approach, because Stew -much like the main character in the film- is also from LA and he too had to deal with freeing himself from family oppression and confronting 'the real' in his life. I asked Stew if the film had any truth to it, and he said, "the film is somewhat based on real life and some parts fiction," he feels that everyone should be able to relate to it without feeling biased or left-out. Stew says, "it's just like a Jewish guy growing up and his family wants him to pursue [that religion] but he doesn't want to... it's about breaking away from those pressures and not being oppressed. Not just Black oppression, but any kind of oprression."

The Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com) reports that the original Broadway production of "Passing Strange" opened at the Belasco Theater in New York on Feb. 28, 2008, ran for 165 performances and was nominated for the 2008 Tony Awards for the Best Musical and Score, and won for the Best Book; Daniel Breaker and De'Adre Aziza received Tony Award nominations for acting, as did Stew (who had four nominations and one win- Best Book). Ultimately, Stew feels that whatever your passion is in life, you should pursue it with all of your heart and rock on!

(film producer Steve Klein & creator Stew)

(cast from l-r, De'Adre Aziza, Heidi Rodewald, Eisa Davis, Chad Goodridge, Colman Domingo and Daniel Breaker)

(me & Stew after the premiere)


The September Issue

Produced by: R.J. Cutler
Directed by: R.J. Cutler
Original Music by: Craig Richey
Featuring: Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington, and André Leon Talley
Length: 90 minutes
Date of Release: September 11, 2009 (In limited theaters)

In the whirlwind of a $300 billion-dollar industry, Anna Wintour stands tall as the queen bee, the veritable mover and shaker of fashion. Her 20-year stewardship over VOGUE magazine has amassed a steady base of 1.2 million subscribers -which translates into millions of dollars for Condé Nast Publications, the owners of VOGUE; and even in the face of a recession, she still continues to give readers the créme de la créme of beauty and fashion, even if they can't afford the price tag.

That type of power allows Wintour to have free reign over all things glamorous within her field, but it equally draws a ton of negative press because often her demeanor is seen as being haughty or non-accepting of those who aren't on her level. The documentary film The September Issue, produced and directed by R.J. Cutler, follows Wintour and the creation of VOGUE's September 2007 issue, and for once, audiences have the opportunity to see what goes on inside her ultra-exclusive world. The star of that issue was Hollywood actress Sienna Miller photographed for the cover, but the stars of the film are none other than Wintour and her hard-working staff at VOGUE; some characters are more colorful than others, but all are very dedicated when tending to the behemoth periodical.

(The September Issue, VOGUE 2007)

Because VOGUE is a fashion magazine, the perspective of the film is going to be fashion, of course, but what's important to remember is that this documentary was made two years ago, just before the impact of a global recession (a predicament that the fashion industry is now trying to climb out of). Gone are those glory days of a magazine touting the capability to print 1,000+ pages of copy and advertisement (even the current issue of VOGUE looks anorexic compared to its September 2007 counterpart), but the ability to dissect this reality is one of the reasons why the film has achieved success. VOGUE was able to claim its 'biggest issue ever' at that point in time because advertisers and investors were riding high -financially- and were able to spend upwards of $100,000.00 for just a 2-page color ad in the magazine; and to remind us of how superflous the budgets were back then, Cutler shows us a scene in which Grace Coddington (VOGUE's Creative Director), is examining pictures from an assigned 1920's themed photoshoot which Wintour put her in charge of... the models hair is coiffed and the make-up is divine, but after Wintour scours the final pictures, some are met with disapproval and about "$50,000.00 worth of work" gets cut out of the story -because the disposed images didn't please Wintour's eye.

(Coddington's 20's inspired story)

This is one of the many instances where we get to see how fashion is gathered and put together for the magazine, as well as what makes it in and what doesn't. Coddington (one of the first in the film to receive the axe from Wintour), says, "I care very much about what I do," which explains her loyalty to VOGUE for more than 40 years. Throughout the film, she and Wintour rarely see eye-to-eye, eventhough the pair began working at American VOGUE on the same day. Of their professional relationship, Coddington says "it's like you're living together for 20 years." Wintour says, "Grace is a genius," but that doesn't stop her from making Coddington re-shoot an entirely different color-blocking story, that -to other staffers- was perfectly fine to begin with. Balancing out Wintour's austerity with warm eclecticism, Coddington (who also hails from England), began her career in fashion at the age of 17, and even once appeared on the cover of VOGUE as a model, and by the end of the film she easily works her way into the hearts of the audience by standing up to the enemy (aka Wintour), who as the editor-in-chief, has little patience for others and gives a few of her own The Devil Wears Prada-esque eye-rolls and conversation quips, just as Miranda Priestly would. In a run-through of a different fashion story (for this same issue), Contributing Editor (Edward Enninful), fails at trying to appease Wintour with his dull location prospects and tired fashion concepts, after Enninful defeatedly exits Wintour's office, Coddington cautions him, "You gotta be tougher."

Wintour's powerful influence extends way beyond the magazine, the film also depicts her guiding the career of burgeoning fashion designer Thakoon Panichgul, to whom she exclaims, "I told you I would get you the Gap," (referencing the fact that she convinced the clothing retailer to select Thakoon as an exclusive collaborator). Moreover, it's hard to imagine the film without the presence of André Leon Talley, VOGUE's Editor-at-Large. He shows up on screen as more of a comic relief than as a viable industry leader that we've come to know him as. In helping to push the September issue more over-the-top (a Talley specialty), he exclaims, "It's a famine of beauty!," reminding the audience why magazines such as VOGUE still exist- to help us escape reality by selling fantasy and glamour to us, even if we can't afford the price tag. But there's a point in the film where even Talley has to face reality (and the limit of his own power), he's shown -unenthusiastically- playing tennis, under the suggestion of Wintour, who wants him to loose weight. And although Talley says, "I have to get out and approach life with my own aesthetics about style," (carrying a Louis Vuitton embroidered tennis-set), in the end, he too realizes that, "what Mrs. Wintour says, goes!"

In regards to the future of VOGUE, Wintour says "Fashion's not about looking back, it's always about looking forward," but where does one look when the magazine will no longer be under her helm? Oddly enough, her own daughter (Bee Schaffer), doesn't want to carry out mommy's legacy. Schaffer, who is 22, says "I really don't wanna work in fashion... I think I wanna go to law school." Further expressing how there's more to life than just fashion, Shaffer even mocks how most fashionistas take themselves "too seriously." In earnest, Wintour says, "When I find myself getting really, really angry, it might be time to stop," yet in the film, she gets angry often... she gets anrgy when her staff defies her (Coddington in particular), she gets angry when designers waste her time (a visit to Stefano Pilate induced eye rolls at the Yves Saint Laurent atelier), and she gets angry when her space is invaded (the press is shown throughout the film, asking her thousands of questions and pointing cameras in her face).

Perhaps the most ironic part of the film is towards the end, when Coddington's second try at the color-blocking shoot proves successful. She and photographer Patrick Demarchelier, incorporate the film's cinematographer (Robert Richman aka Bob) into the photoshoot with supermodel Caroline Trentini, and a few of the shots capture Bob and Trentini jumping and posing in mid-air. One shot in particular shows Bob with a slightly protruding stomach, and upon Coddington returning the final images to Wintour for approval, Wintour exclaims, "[there] needs to be a bit of retouching [here]...," pointing to Bob's pouch in the picture, "[someone] needs to go to the gym." Yes, she does this even as Bob is rolling the camera, and with it, the audience erupts in laughter. But in true form, Coddington protests against her boss, she says "Everybody isnt perfect in this world, it's enough that the models are already skinny," and in true defiance, Coddington calls the magazine's art department and demands that Bob's stomach not be retouched before the issue goes to print... et voila, it wasn't.

(Bob & Trentini)

Earlier this year when the film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, it was Bob who had the last laugh, he won the award for Cinematography in the Documentary category, the film itself was nominated for the Sundance Grand Jury Prize, but it didn't win. Cutler and his crew have received many accolades for taking moviegoers behind the scenes of an industry that dictates what people wear, and the film does an excellent job of not just serving Wintour up as the end all-be all of fashion, but also showing her vulnerabilities and the challenges of maintaining a supportive staff. The film reminds us of why people are enamored with the magazine and why VOGUE is -as the Fashion Features Director (Sally Singer), points out- "...something people want to read."

And just in case you're wondering why the VOGUE staffers would continue working in such a stressful environment under a boss whose attitude and ego appear to be larger than life, Coddington put it best when she says, "You gotta have something to put your work in, unless it's not valid," and for the past 100 years VOGUE magazine has been that final stamp of approval for all things fashion... so, read on!

(Washington, D.C. film premiere of The September Issue, sponsored by the Gilt Groupe)

(me & event host Katie Rost)

(event host Katie Rost & her mom Rynthia Rost Buccine)


Okay, so... Bravo TV's hit, new reality series "The Fashion Show" has been way over, and the winner wasn't Daniella (as many expected), Anna McCraney was the last woman standing.

Now, with the return of Project Runway (on cable's Lifetime channel), will the two shows duke-it-out for the #1 fashon-reality show spot, or will Project Runway reclaim its throne... in the meantime, let's celebrate "The Fashion Show" and its success, before its out and forgetten about!

"The Fashion Show" was off to a heady start; fashion designers worked arduously -with guns ablazing- on weekly 'mini-challenges' conjured up by Harper's Bazaar magazine editors, as well, they received tedious design challenges thought up by Isaac Mizrahi and Kelly Rowland (the shows' hosts). First there were 15, and then there were 4... and in the top 4 sat Anna, James Paul, Daniella and Reco -all of whom were deserving- but there could only be 1 winner.

Anna's winning designs captivated audiences because of her use of color, surprise body-shaping, and her clothes' practicality.