Kate Novack knew at once that André Leon Talley was a “documentarist’s dream.”
After co-producing documentaries like Le Cirque: A Table in Heaven and Page One: Inside the New York Times, both directed by her husband Andrew Rossi, Novack was ready for a project of her own.
At a screening for The First Monday in May at the Paris Theater, an African-American man in the audience stood up and spoke to André, who was in the film. He said, “I moved to New York City to study fashion. My parents don’t believe that what I do is real, but I know that it is, because I saw you do it.” Novack knew at once that André’s story was an important one to tell.
André Leon Talley is a recognizable face for any America’s Next Top Model viewers, Vogue readers, Obama family lovers, or social media gurus. André, now 68, comes from humble beginnings in the South, the son of a taxi driver. He was raised by his grandmother, Bennie Davis, who cultivated his love for fashion. He first found an issue of Vogue at his local library. André taught himself French, in which he earned his Master’s Degree from Brown University.
In 1974, André began work at Andy Warhol’s Factory as a receptionist. He then volunteered as the personal assistant of Diana Vreeland (to whom he still refers as ‘Mrs. Vreeland’), an iconic Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar columnist as well as the special consultant of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His career exploded when he moved to New York City in the 70s, leaving the South for good. He became friends with the likes of Anna Wintour, Tom Ford, and Manolo Blahnik.
“Part of what makes André so complex and interesting is the way in which he can skillfully move between that rawness and honesty and the self-protectiveness that he has needed – which I think most human beings can relate to,” Novack said.
Novack knew at once that André is not just a successful man of the fashion world; he embodies much more. Having been raised in the Jim Crow era, André knew that the South was no place for a man of fashion, let alone a gay man of color. André has pushed incessantly for the inclusion of African-American models in the fashion industry, proving that his journey of success is not “only his,” said Novack. As soon as André agreed to do the film, he sent Novack and Rossi (the producer) an e-mail sharing his favorite movies, songs, and memories from throughout the years. The archival footage is blended into the present-day observations of André, proving the impact of a plethora of influences on the icon – the “texture” of the film, said Novack.
Novack was approached with the idea of creating a scripted film for André, but almost immediately shut the idea down: “Who could play André better than André?”
Nevertheless, though his public profile is “finely chiseled”, there is a privatized side of André that Novack had to dig deep to find. “He’s a wonderful storyteller,” Novack said. “But it took some teasing out for example – he had written an autobiography, but he really had never spoken that much publicly about racism that he had dealt with in his career. It just took time.”
Novack mentions the most surprising moment of the filming: when André breaks down when reflecting upon a former nickname of his: Queen Kong. “I never expected that we’d be in the Condé Nast archive, where he’s wearing those white gloves that you have to wear when you’re handling the archival material – that that would be a moment when he would be so emotional. But human beings are complex, and you never know when someone is going to feel moved.”
Following the fashion icon for almost a year, Novack developed a personal relationship with André that translates illustriously to the screen. His quiet moments are paired with his dry humor, and his honesty with himself and his life is evident and inspiring. The documentary also shows André transitioning through the 2016 election, juxtaposed with his empowerment during the Obama administration. He becomes the physical manifestation of the nation’s dread and despair as the polls closed on November 8. This storyline becomes more poignant as the documentary progresses, which Novack said was not part of the original plan.
“I view André’s story as an American success story, with all of its difficulties and with all of the pain that he had to go through. While we were filming, he talked a lot about how much the country has progressed in terms of racial equality since he was a boy growing up with his grandmother, and especially that sweep culminating in that Michelle Obama cover that he wrote. At the same time, he’s watching this car crash unfold on the national political stage, and the personal and political storylines collided.” Novack’s portrait of André is intimate, comprehensive, honest, and exquisite.
Novack’s The Gospel According to André premieres in select theaters May 24, and everywhere May 25. For more information, or to buy tickets, visit www.thegospelaccordingtoandre.com.