Berry Gordy Jr

It [Mahogany] was one of the great thrills of my life... when Isaid "action" to begin the first scene I ever directed, everything and everybody started moving. ... I'd been chairman of the board but never had the feeling of such power. It was incredible.1 Berry Gordy Jr.

Berry Gordy Jr.'s fame as a record mogul and music producer was well established by the early 1970s. He had spearheaded a remarkable business accomplishment by taking unknown talents and honing them into a self-contained empire that dominated the R&B music charts.

One of eight children, Gordy was raised in Detroit under the strict parenting of his father, a plastering contractor, and his mother, a teacher.2 Although he did some boxing as a featherweight as an adolescent,3 Gordy had a strong love for music even then, as his favorite musicians were Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Erroll Garner.4

But with a wife and children to provide for, Gordy joined the ranks of many others in Detroit and obtained a job on an auto assembly line at Lincoln Mercury.5 As he put trim and chrome around windows, Gordy struggled for opportunity as a songwriter. Eventually, one of the first songs that he wrote, ''You Are You,'' made it into the repertoire of Doris Day,6 and with $800, he established the Tamla record label, which in 1959 became Motown Records.7 The first Motown hits included ''Shop Around'' by the Miracles and ''Please Mr. Postman'' by the Marvelettes;8 decades later, in 1983, after achieving 110 number one hits, Motown Productions was the largest black-owned company in America, with revenues of $104 million.9

In the '70s, Gordy moved the company to Los Angeles and branched out into films and television as a producer. His first film, Lady Sings the Blues (1972), won a wide crossover audience and five Academy Award nominations,10 but the film production side of Motown never reached the heights of success that the music side did, despite the company's involvement with the films The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (1976) and The Last Dragon (1985). By the end of the '80s, Motown's dominance waned as the company's chief moneymaking artists—Gladys Knight, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson—signed deals with other companies,11 influencing Gordy's decision to give up control of Motown in 1988.12

When Gordy turned to film directing in the mid-'70s, he chose a black romance that examined the frailty of wealth and fame. Mahogany (1975) follows the odyssey of Tracy Chambers (Diana Ross), an aspiring fashion designer who's committed to achieving her dream of becoming internationally known and revered. Living in Chicago's inner city, Tracy works in a department store while attending evening classes in fashion design. She develops a romance with Brian (Billy Dee Williams), a black political activist committed to the community. When world-famous fashion photographer Sean McAvoy (Anthony Perkins) gives Tracy the opportunity to travel to Rome to work as a model and hopefully a designer, she follows her dream, becoming a popular model named Mahogany. McAvoy, dealing with sexual impotence, humiliates Mahogany at a fashion auction, but she is rescued by Christian Rosetti (Jean-Pierre Aumont), a wealthy Italian socialite.

When Brian arrives in Rome, he's unsuccessful in convincing Tracy to return to Chicago with him, so he warns her: ''You may be a success, but you're all alone. . . . Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with.'' After surviving a car crash in which McAvoy is killed, Tracy is financially supported by Rosetti, realizing her dream at her gala opening of

Diana Ross Berry Gordy
In Mahogany, Tracy Chambers (Diana Ross) chooses a romantic relationship with Brian (Billy Dee Williams) rather than a career as a high-fashion designer.

her original designs. However, taking her bows, Tracy hears Brian's cautionary words in her head. Her fame is indeed empty, and the film ends as she returns home to Chicago and to Brian, the man she loves.

The timing of this film's release had some significance in that the women's movement was influential in its popular appeal. The film's subject matter and its didactic ending definitely challenged some of the feminist ideas finding expression at the time. Through the character Mahogany, the message was that a black woman's commitment to her man was synonymous with a commitment to the black community, and that any consideration beyond that was nothing more than deluded selfishness. The enduring effect of Tracy and Brian's romance revolved around their depiction of the ideal black love and how it should fit into the black cultural tradition.

In weighing the story, the Tracy-Brian relationship, despite its political message, gives the film much of its charm. As a first-time director, Gordy allows the on-screen chemistry between Ross and Williams to work again as it did in their previous pairing in Lady Sings the Blues. Ross' energetic feistiness works well for Tracy's character, while Williams' relaxed suavity thoroughly suits Brian's romantic allure. In their scenes of intimacy, Gordy gives the audience close-ups of kisses and embraces that come out of the old Hollywood style. Gordy constructs a subtle passion and does not push their "love" scenes into "sex" scenes, where the audience voyeuristically watches two naked people wrestling in the sheets.

Beyond the black romance, Gordy appears most comfortable in capturing the elegance of Mahogany's world of flowing gowns, catwalks, parties, and artistic excess. Gordy and Ross do an excellent job of making Tracy's ambitions and success believable, allowing just enough aspects of American racism to fuel Tracy's unquenchable aspirations. On the other hand, Gordy is not as convincing when structuring Brian's political world, despite the effort to keep the character's scenes primarily on the exterior streets. Gordy wants Brian to come off as a man of the streets and the community, but the vocal cadence, wardrobe, and dialogue of Williams' character doesn't ring true. Williams, as Brian, is certainly charismatic, but Gordy seems more intent on keeping the camera on close-ups of his actor's handsome features than on developing a street edginess to his character.

Mahogany is an entertaining film that offers a much needed contrast to the black urban action films that offer a steady and limited presentation of black romance and intimacy. The film also attempts to show the possibilities of following one's dreams despite the inner-city environment that all but suffocates those dreams. Significantly, it also underscores the efforts by committed black leaders to improve and maintain a black community through united determination. With those points, the film triumphs, but the resolutions at the end of the film tend to oversimplify life choices and to approbate traditional gender roles as the ideal.

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Film Making

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