"For Barack, success isn't about how much money you make, it's about the difference you make in people's lives." ~@MichelleObama #DNC
"Success is NOTHING without someone to share it with" Billy Dee Williams as Brian Chambers, Mahogany, 1975
Michelle Obama's 2012 Democratic National Convention (September 5, 2012) speech was, by all accounts, the greatest that a first lady has ever delivered. Mrs. Obama's testimony/tribute to American values was inspiring as she, in part, reflected on her and the President's having endured being "so young, so in love and so in debt." In fact, Obama's anecdotes of education, hard work, sacrifice, grace and humility may have only been upstaged by her glamour. Our FLOTUS' hair was "laid to the gods" and, according to a Facebook post by performance studies scholar, E. Patrick Johnson,"The FIRST LADY gave you face, drag, and knowledge for your mind. WORK!" Her (overall)performance was flawless and not in a superficial way that basketball, Hollyweird and hip hop reality wives strive to appear, but it was achieved through a confluence of many unseen communicative apparatuses that are not limited a sound mind, a loving heart and a humble spirit.
The image of a modelesque brown skinned Chicago native campaigning for her politician (POTUS, no less) husband brought tears to my eyes and a reference to my mind. I went on YouTube to see if I could find the last scene from the 1975 cult classic "Mahogany" so I could post it to my Facebook account with a joke about how the FLOTUS' speech made me want to deliver the, "well Mr. you've got my vote" line when it hit me. I am not the Tracy Chambers who would to deliver the line to Brian Walker (not to speak of the soulful kiss that followed), Michelle Obama is! Michelle and Barack Obama are a 2012 version of Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams!
"Mahogany," produced by Motown and directed by Berry Gordy, was panned by critics but did well at the box office and can still be caught on black cable stations. The film is a cautionary tale about a talented but struggling fashion designer, Tracy Chambers (Ross) who meets and falls in love with Brian Walker, an audacious (yes I used that word on purpose) yet hot-headed, Chicago politician (Williams). When Walker begins to chauvinistically expect her to put her dreams down to support his, Tracy leaves him to follow Sean McAvoy, a top fashion photographer (Anthony Perkins) who has decided that he wants her as his next project (he renames her "Mahogany"). McAvoy wisks her away to Europe. In Italy, Tracy becomes a world renowned model and gets (over)exposed to all the trappings that go with it: a jet set lifestyle, drugs, "freak parties," that include the biggest freak of them all, McAvoy, who is revealed to be an impotent sociopath. Tracy adjusts to and enjoys her new life but when tries to integrate her own designs into her cover shoots, McAvoy humiliates her. In a final bid to control her, he attempts to kill them both, shooting pictures all the while. Tracy survives the ordeal but only suffers more humiliation when another "benefactor" tries to bequeath her the clothing line she's always wanted. Lucky for Tracy her new sponsor is generous to a fault and allows her to return home to Chicago when she cannot return his love.
It is hard to imagine that Michelle and Barack were not influenced by "Mahogany" even though it is not hard to re-imagine them in it. President Obama doesn't mention it in his memoir, but I can't help but wonder if our POTUS' decision to enter (Chicago) politics was influenced by Williams' ultra debonair movie role. Do the Obamas privately joke about their resemblance to the storied cinematic couple? Oprah Winfrey, the couples' contemporary, has often remarked about the impact that Diana Ross' image had on her as a teen. As part of Generation Jones (those born between 1954-1965) the President and First Lady were not only among the first to integrate American schools, they were the first to benefit from Motown's combined visual and sonic aesthetics.
Although it was initially restricted to album covers, Motown's visual aesthetics eventually leapt on to the silver screen. Motown's movies, especially "Lady Sings the Blues" (1972) and "Mahogany," are largely cited as vehicles for Ross' talents; however, these films also functioned as representations of black love and politics in a post Civil Rights era. Ross' characters were often tortured by their talents and ambition while Williams played a conscious yet cool leading man who was wise and willing enough to put love first.
Black feminism was not fully realized in these movies. Ross' larger than life glamour was featured as a beauty ideal that countered Hollywood's blonde, blue eyed standard. Interestingly, within the context of Williams and Ross onscreen love relationships, Ross' beauty was scaled to size. Williams and Ross' Black love was represented as even larger than Ross' eyes and ambition, a tall order indeed. Black love was not only real, it was surreal. Even further, Black talent served as a dimension of this love. In "Mahogany" especially, romantic love resulted from merging the talents of these "young, gifted and Black" individuals. The (secular) moral of both movies seemed to reflect that "when ambition is grounded in service, it serves as Black love's backdrop."
In 2012, Michelle and Barack Obama, our FLOTUS and POTUS, respectively, are real life, more improved, versions of Tracy and Brian. This is largely due to the fact that Michelle did not have to go to Europe and get "turned out" before returning home to use her talents to support her husband. She supported him from the beginning. When Barack met Michelle at the law firm where he had secured an internship and she was already employed on a full time basis, he didn't have to end up reminding her that "success is nothing without someone to share it with." Michelle didn't dismiss him as a loser and leave him to pursue her dreams because of his raggedy car. I'm sure that her strong parents provided her first and best model but I can't help but wonder whether or not "Mahogany's" moral served as a reminder? Did the movie's message resonate with the Obamas in a way that helped them remember what was important during the hard times? Like their on screen prototypes, President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama found a way to get and stay together while using and growing their talents at the same (damn) time.
Unlike "Sparkle" and "Dreamgirls," two other black girl coming of age stories, "Mahogany" doesn't need to be updated and remade. Michelle and Barack already (re) produced it. This time real life didn't just imitate art, it was better than the original.