The Reel Review
In March 1966, Donyale Luna became the first Black model to appear on the cover of Vogue, a fact that went largely unheralded until now, because of Luna’s quirky personality and her untimely death in 1979 at the age of 33. This HBO documentary examines the Detroit native’s complicated life as a reluctant racial pioneer and fashion industry innovator, who expanded the world’s perceptions of beauty in the decades that followed.
Director Nailah Jefferson tells Luna’s tale in a non-linear format, in an avant-garde portrait fitting of Luna’s own exotic, 6’2″ looks and personality. It’s a fascinating, detailed look at a trailblazer whose influence on fashion is still seen today. Criticisms of the film are minor – with so much focus on the creativity, Jefferson excludes some important, key details. Luna’s ancestry, her first marriage and other career highlights – including her collaborations with filmmaker Federico Fellini – are mostly ignored. Former Vogue Editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland is castigated in a stomach-churning glimpse at the abhorrent racism that was prevalent in the fashion industry of that era.
The film cleverly incorporates interviews, archival footage, creative animation and unusual camera angles to illustrate how Luna promoted herself as racially ambiguous at a time when Black models were almost unheard of. While the film celebrates Luna’s success, it is also defined by her tragedy. Besides the racism in the fashion industry, Luna also faced it at the hands of her second husband’s own Italian family. We meet Luna’s husband and the now adult daughter who was only 18 months old at Luna’s death. Luna was a rarity, and this film rightly gives Luna her due.
• Donyale Luna also was the first Black model to appear on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, in its June 1966 edition.
• In 1964, working as a model for Paco Rabanne, Luna witnessed American journalists spitting in Rabanne’s face because his fashion show used only Black models.
• Model and friend Pat Cleveland: “When we walked into restaurants people would stop eating and stand up and applaud. She was like a mirage, or some kind of fantasy.”