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New Movies Put Focus on Black Beauty and Style

Award contenders portray iconic women who, like us, defined themselves

spinner image three leading ladies viola davis in ma raineys black bottom andra day in the united states versus billie holiday and jennifer hudson in respect
L to R: Viola Davis in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Andra Day in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, Jennifer Hudson in Respect.
David Lee/Netflix; Takashi Seida/Paramount Pictures; Quantrell D. Colbert/MGM

All eyes are on Andra Day as she takes to the stage in the riveting biopic The United States vs. Billie Holiday, opening Friday. Before Day gives voice to the haunting lyrics of “Strange Fruit,” Holiday’s protest to the lynching of Black Americans, there is something that pulls the audience in and holds us captive: She is a vision.

The way Day, 36, commands the screen is what I’ve come to think of as that “soul force” otherwise known as Black style and all that it encompasses. Day inhabits Holiday and her ability to make a way out of no way, like the signature gardenia that came about after Holiday burned a hole in her hair and then created the sleekest of dos, or her divine red lip paired with razor-sharp brows as a look.

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When it came to style, Holiday, like other celebrated women of her era (Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Lena Horne), took the rule book of the day and wrote her own chapter. She favored satin, cinched-waist gowns one moment and trousers paired with neat crepe shirts the next (rendered well in the film by the Prada team). Director Lee Daniels demonstrates that “Lady Day” made style choices based purely on who she was and how she saw herself, much like Black women through the ages. Holiday’s beauty was a form of expression and she was determined to have her say, despite the adversities she faced. I remember my own mother preparing to attend Holiday’s funeral and the care she took in getting ready for Billie’s homegoing because no matter the occasion, we style.

Hollywood loves a good biopic, and films like Holiday and another award contender, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, don’t disappoint. Our era is one in which stories that explore the lives of Black women are in demand, and films like Respect, starring Jennifer Hudson, and Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia, starring Danielle Brooks, will soon be the talk of critics everywhere. What these movies have in common is that they convey women who refused to be invisible and who owned their beauty, style and passions without hesitation.

spinner image From left to right are beyonce viola davis angela bassett serena williams andra day and kamala harris
L to R: Beyonce in her iconic 2016 Super Bowl performance, Viola Davis and Angela Bassett showing creative red carpet looks, Serena Williams’ FloJo tribute athletic wear, Andra Day as Billie Holiday, and Kamala Harris sporting her trademark Chucks.
Timothy A. Clary; Jessie Grant; Frazer Harrison; TPN; Takashi Seida/Paramount Pictures; Joshua Lott/Getty Images/AARP

Beauty: Bold strokes

As an editor who’s held up the mirror on Black women for decades, I take joy in witnessing today’s Black Girl Magic, which celebrates the beauty and power of Black women. I’ve watched us journey from the unsettling years when none of the makeup available looked like us or spoke to our needs and desires. I rejoiced when Beverly Johnson, Iman and Beyoncé appeared on the covers of magazines that didn’t celebrate our beauty. As a former model, I, like my sisters, became a mix master, shaving rouge into ashy powders to warm them up and blending foundations to mimic our rich skin tones long before the industry caught up.

Today is the future we dreamed of, one where Rihanna offers us Fenty Beauty and over 40 shades of foundation and Lupita Nyong’o and Kerry Washington smile at us from advertising pages. This isn’t lost on us, because though Black beauty and how we perceive ourselves is self-referential, a key part of the evolution is the ability to see ourselves in the mainstream. “I couldn’t pick up a Seventeen magazine when I was 13 and find something about my skin because I didn’t see myself on those pages. It was as if I didn’t exist,” said Lisa Price, founder of the beauty brand Carol’s Daughter.

Prevailing attitudes about how we really want to look have also created a seismic shift in how we wear our crowns. We’ve gone from stereotypical style choices, and chemical dependency that saw us wed to relaxers, to embracing our own distinct “hair journeys” where we are wed simply to ourselves. These explorations see us owning all the chameleons that lie inside each of us.

How we are seen and heard has also been shifted as much by the Crown Act (created in 2019 by Dove and the Crown Coalition to end hair discrimination) as by those who’ve entered the hair care industry to change the game. Now we are directing the evolution from the salon to the laboratory. Even celeb sisters like Taraji P. Henson, Tracee Ellis Ross and Gabrielle Union are tending our curls with their signature hair care brands and shaping the narrative about what’s beautiful to us.

spinner image clockwise from top left is kerry washington vanessa williams tyra banks amanda gorman rihanna and two women wearing their Sunday best church hats
Kerry Washington, Vanessa Williams, Tyra Banks, poet Amanda Gorman, Rihanna, and two women wearing their Sunday best church hats.
Karwai Tang; Jon Kopaloff; Kelsey McNeal; San Fransisco Chronicle; Dimitrios Kambouris; Hill Street Studios/Getty Images/AARP

Style: In the spotlight

Back in the day, Sunday hats in the Black church took your breath away, mink coats stole the show, and a cinched waist was on lockdown thanks to the best girdles under the sun! We sashayed from our own runways to the street with the best of them, sewing our clothing on a dime, and no one was the wiser. According to celebrity stylist Wouri Vice, who works with Andra Day and singer-songwriter H.E.R., for us it’s always been about originality. “There’s always been a reason behind why we do what we do, and a brilliance in the way that we do it,” Vice notes. When I first worked with Destiny’s Child, Tina Lawson, Beyoncé’s mom, was creating the distinctive costumes that formed their signature look born out of her own vision. And who can forget record-breaking sprinter Florence Griffith Joyner — Flo-Jo — and the style she brought to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul? She blazed a trail for Serena Williams and how she mesmerizes us on the court today.

Vice says it all began with what was handed to us as a people: scraps. “Our ancestors took the same cotton that we once had to put through the cotton gins and created gowns,” he says. What Black women have always proven is that style knows no limits, so whether it’s supermodel Naomi Campbell, who brings a new dimension to anything she wears, or Vice President Kamala Harris rocking power in Converse sneakers, we need look no further for the evolution.

Mikki Taylor is the editor-at-large at Essence magazine. She is coauthor of the new audiobook Force of Beauty: A Newark Family Memoir, an Audible Original.

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