Review | ‘Invisible Beauty’: Portrait of a fashion revolutionary

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(2.5 stars)

Supermodel and actor Tyson Beckford has a warning about Bethann Hardison, the model turned modeling agency owner and activist who’s the subject of the documentary “Invisible Beauty,” and who was once his mentor. “Once you meet this person,” Beckford says, “it’s going to change your life.” Coming early in a film that sets out to do just that — introduce you to a person who will change the way you see the world, if only a little — it’s still a bold claim to make about someone we haven’t yet met. But by the end of the film, you might not be surprised that Beckford says it so confidently.

Hardison, who co-directed “Invisible Beauty” with Frédéric Tcheng, the director of “Halston” and several other fashion documentaries, is a person whose ambitions run high. After breaking into the fashion industry in the late 1960s as a model for designer Willi Smith, Hardison — skinny, androgynous and darker-skinned than most other Black models of her day (and they’re weren’t many) — became one of a small group of runway pioneers, along with Beverly Johnson, Iman, Pat Cleveland and others in the 1970s, eventually transitioning into model management in 1980.

After a short stint with the agency Click, Hardison opened her own shop in 1984, focused on advancing the careers of a more racially diverse talent pool. She accomplished that goal but closed Bethann Management in 1996. Hardison had bigger fish to fry yet: In 2013, she famously released an open letter accusing the fashion industry — and several designers by name — of racism.

Those milestones are but a few of the highlights of a remarkable career and life — with a focus on racial reckoning — that “Invisible Beauty” dutifully covers. Hardison, who is now 80, is shown at work on an as-yet-unpublished memoir, and this film at times feels like a cross-promotion for that book. In addition to Beckford, testimonials come pouring in from model Naomi Campbell, writer Fran Lebowitz, photographer Bruce Weber, fashion critic Robin Givhan of this newspaper and others.

On camera, Hardison is frank, speaking of her romantic relationships and a complicated relationship with her son, the actor Kadeem Hardison — for whom she was not the most attentive or present mother — with at times surprising candor.

But it is Hardison’s work — the fight for greater representation and equity for people of color in fashion — that is the film’s, and Hardison’s, true focus. “I ain’t just an agent,” she says, noting that the last thing she wants carved on her tombstone is “Here lies Bethann: She had an agency.”

So what does she want? Late in the film, she makes her objective plain: to change not the fashion industry, but the world. As Givhan says in one interview clip, fashion isn’t just about wearing nice clothes. It’s a template for the judgments we make about people, for the power and the jobs and the respect that we give — or withhold from — them. In short, representation in fashion matters.

By the end of “Invisible Beauty,” it’s obvious from all the accolades that she made a difference in the lives of a new generation of Black models. About that, however, she does not care. “I’m not trying to help Black people,” Hardison says. “I’m trying to educate White people.” For that audience, this film should be required viewing.

Unrated. At the Angelika Film Center Mosaic and the Cinema Arts Theatre. Contains strong language and nudity. 115 minutes.

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