Diana Ross Essay

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When company comes, they play cards and dominoes. My parents put on the Diana album because disco is one life, and some nights, we live it.

I climb from lap to lap, begging for sips of beer, whiskey, and wine until cigarette smoke is thick enough to blind me, and I run to my room.

But my father won't have it. Everybody here is here to party. This is his house. "Tenderness" is playing, and he's as drunk as he will be. He calls me from my room and tells me to dance.

I do whatever he tells me. I'm that kind of kid. Our company encircles me with yelps and claps while I stomp and slide all over the den. I do as Daddy tells me. I dance to Diana Ross.

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I was getting all kinds of messages to get off the stage . . . and I had an electric mic in my hand....but I knew that if I would have left the stage, the lights would go out and there would have been some form of panic, and I knew people would have been hurt. -- Diana Ross

I want cartoons—superheroes who fly. The skinny black woman with the widest smile in America wears a beaded orange bodysuit. She raises her arms, and the winds blow. She squints—her eyes delicious and round—the bright blue sky goes black. She tilts her head back and opens her mouth, and her orange cape and mane of black hair rise in the wind. Isn't she flying?

Then comes the voice. A soprano at once clear and breathy calls to the multitudes screaming her name. She makes it rain.

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I prefer lyric sopranos to dramatic ones. I prefer worship to praise.

Curator's Note

In June 1982, film scholar Richard Dyer published a two-page essay on African-American star Diana Ross in the journal Marxism Today. Part of Dyer’s essay focuses on the American conception of success and specifically on how Ross is one of the few black artists who has been “allowed” to be such a success. The first half of this audiovisual essay applies Dyer’s text not to the “real” Diana Ross but to the fictional character she portrays in the star vehicle Mahogany (Berry Gordy, 1975), thereby showing how the onscreen performance and the off-screen persona are intertwined. The second half of the audiovisual essay aims to raise the question (rather than providing a definite answer) whether or not, three decades later, Dyer’s text could be applicable to African-American superstar Beyoncé Knowles.

In Mahogany, Diana Ross plays Tracy, a young black woman from the Chicago South Side who “escapes the ghetto” to Rome, where she is turned into supermodel Mahogany and then becomes a successful fashion designer. However, as the movie’s tagline reads, “Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with,” and thus she returns home to her boyfriend Brian (Billy Dee Williams). Miriam Thaggert has suggested that by having Tracy return to Chicago, “the film cannot envision ‘Diana Ross’s dream come true’ – of being successful” (2012: 734), but that is exactly what the film does: it is not Tracy who returns home, but Mahogany, who is a success in the world of fashion and who shapes the Diana Ross star image. This is why Gerald Early has called Mahogany “a brilliant film” – not for its cinematic qualities but because the film succeeds “to mythify Ross herself as dramatizing the dilemma of crossover success” (2004: 121-122). The movie’s key scene is the almost four-minutes-long montage sequence (also discussed by Jane Gaines in her well-known 1988 Screen article) showing how Tracy is turned into supermodel Mahogany, with the instrumental “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)” as score. In a second essay, Richard Dyer argues that this montage sequence provides a “magical resolution of the irresolvable,” in which issues of race, gender, and class are “resolved” through the star performance; whether or not Mahogany succeeds “depends a lot on how much you go for Diana Ross and sensuous montage” (Dyer 1986: 136-137).

The audiovisual essay opens with dialogue from the film, in which Mahogany introduces “success” as the main topic, followed by a 1975 Paramount radio promo that explicitly states, “Mahogany is Diana Ross and Diana Ross is Mahogany.” All images during the first 30 seconds are taken from Mahogany scenes other than the montage sequence, edited with straight cuts rather than dissolves. Once Dyer’s 1982 text is introduced, all images are taken from the montage sequence with a looped 15-second sample from the instrumental “Theme From Mahogany” as soundtrack. The “sensuous montage” is enhanced by the extensive use of dissolves. In the second half of the audiovisual essay, Diana Ross is literally replaced by Beyoncé, both in Dyer’s text as well as in the images, which are taken from two different sources. The first is the Vogue photo-shoot scene (modelled after the Mahogany montage sequence) from Dreamgirls (Bill Condon, 2006), in which Beyoncé stars as the Ross-inspired fictional character Deena Jones. The second source is a promotional video of the 2011 “African Queen” photo-shoot Beyoncé did for the French fashion magazine L’Officiel Paris (February 2011), best known for the controversial “blackface” poses. The “real” Beyoncé in Paris is remarkably similar to the fictional Mahogany in Rome.

The audiovisual essay’s grand finale merges the star images of the Diana Ross and Beyoncé (as well as the fictional characters Mahogany and Deena Jones), thereby foregrounding the historical continuity in African-American female superstardom and showing how star images can travel over time, informing each other through “real” and fictional personas. The “Theme From Mahogany” bombastic soundtrack is taken from the film score (originally playing over Mahogany’s end credits). Most striking in this segment is the similar way that both Mahogany and Beyoncé are presented as Cleopatra-styled “African Queens.” As Jane Gaines has argued in her discussion of the Mahogany montage sequence: “As her body colour is powdered over or washed out in bright light, and as her long-haired wigs blow around her face, [Tracy] becomes suddenly ‘white’,” meaning that “Tracy becomes Mahogany, acquiring the darkness, richness and value the name connotes; that is, her blackness becomes commodified’ (Gaines 1988: 18-19). The Cleopatra image as dominant trope of black women’s representation in fashion photography makes this commodification obviously visible.

Although not part of the original source material, I have added footage of the 2014 HBO special On The Run Tour: Beyoncé and Jay Z, because it is such a blatant celebration of American (note Beyoncé’s dress) success, emphasized by Jay Z’s exclamation “We did it!” This explicit inclusion of Jay Z in the celebration of black female success can be placed in juxtaposition to the story of Mahogany, in which Mahogany is “punished” for her success by being left behind by her boyfriend Brian, who recites the movie’s tagline “Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with.” Moreover, as Jane Gaines has pointed out, Brian, as the black male protagonist, is explicitly excluded from success (Gaines 1988: 20-21). In stark contrast, not only is Beyoncé celebrated for her success, but Jay Z is also included in the celebration. It is tempting to perceive this as a sign of progress, moving from the post-civil rights era of Diana Ross to the current, allegedly post-racial era of Beyoncé. A four-minute audiovisual essay obviously cannot fully explore the ideological issues of race, gender, and class that these performances by Ross and Beyoncé bring forward. With this audiovisual essay, however, I aim to emphasize the continuity in the representation of African-American female superstardom. In the forthcoming essay “Whitewashing the Dreamgirls: Beyoncé, Diana Ross, and the Commodification of Blackness,” to be published in Revisiting Star Studies, edited by Sabrina Q. Yu and Guy Austin, I discuss the connections between the star images of Diana Ross and Beyoncé in more detail.

 

Note:

This video was produced out of the “Scholarship in Sound and Image” workshop at Middlebury College, June 2015, as funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Works Cited:

Dyer, Richard (1982), ‘Diana Ross’, Marxism Today, pp. 36-37.

Dyer, Richard (1986), ‘Mahogany’, in Charlotte Brundson (ed.), Films for Women, London: BFI Publishing, pp. 131-137.

Early, Gerald (2004), One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture (revised and expanded edition), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Gaines, Jane (1988), ‘White Privilege and Looking Relations: Race and Gender in Feminist Film Theory’, Screen 29:4, pp. 12-27.

Kooijman, Jaap (forthcoming in 2016), ‘Whitewashing the Dreamgirls: Beyoncé, Diana Ross, and the Commodification of Blackness’, in Sabrina Q. Yu and Guy Austin (editors), Revisiting Star Studies: Cultures, Themes and Methods, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Thaggert, Miriam (2012), ‘Marriage, Moynihan, Mahogany: Success and the Post-Civil Rights Black Female Professional in Film’, American Quarterly 64:4, pp. 715-740.

Success from JaapKooijman on Vimeo.

Review by Richard Dyer

In his audiovisual essay Success, JaapKooijman takes an idea sketched in an article in a monthly magazine (one of a Euro-communist tendency) and brilliantly – and I’m bound to say gratifyingly – runs with it, providing evidence for its viability and, even more surprisingly, its continued relevance. His first move is to select shots and sequences from Mahogany, a film whose relationship to both the image of Diana Ross and the myth of success, and specifically African-American success, is both complex and elusive: the selection itself enacts the ambivalence of Ross as an avatar of success, affirming it yet hinting at its fragility and bad faith. Then he sets these against quotations from the article, the contrast between the cerebrality of the words and the sensuousness of the imagery allowing for the former to articulate questions about the latter and the sensuousness to insist on its allure in the face of critique. Kooijman holds both in tension, and this then further allows the resonance of the song’s lyrics, heard earlier in the film even if now only evoked by the melody, to suggest their irony: do you – Diana, Black America – know where you’re going to? But the essay is not finished, for it next tests the ideas against the image of Beyoncé. Again, the selection of the imagery here is magnificently telling, combining those from a film in which Beyoncé plays a character based on Ross with a Beyoncé fashion shoot that evokes the character Ross plays in Mahogany. There are two further moves here. First, by the simple but inspired device of repetition of both the article’s words and the music from Mahogany, Success forces a consideration of the validity of the comparison, to my mind wholly vindicating the decision to make it. Second, Kooijman’s editing here both underlines the (to me) startling continuity of imagery between the two stars and films and the (Orientalist) fashions worn in them and preserves the ecstasy of the rhythm of the editing in the Mahogany sequence. For it is this that is the triumph of the whole essay, that it is able to be analytic and sensuously evocative, to perform critique and surrender.

The essay also illustrates a conundrum of criticism and textual analysis, a fortiori of a culturalist bent, a conundrum to do with words. Without words, Success would work perfectly well as a compare and contrast of two major star images and would make available the possibility of considering them as representative of something wider, such as glamorous African-American singing female stardom, the idea of success and the connections between the two. However, it is the implicit words of the song and the explicit quotes from the article in the video essay itself that anchor the images and sounds and their combinations and repetitions in wider, more abstract and generalizing considerations, the province of language. However, even when words do their best at conveying the texture, feel and affect of tones, textures and rhythms, of performance and presence, that best must fall short of the experience of these, in part simply because words can never be them. What Kooijman’sSuccess demonstrates is how editing (in the broad sense of selection and combination) can do what words cannot, not just to enable one to (re)see and (re)hear the affective qualities of the material but actually to reflect directly upon them, to critique affect by means of affect.

 

Review by ChiaraGrizzaffi

JaapKooijman’s video “Success. Richard Dyer on Diana Ross [and Beyond]”combines in an effective and compelling way its formal and stylistic strategies with the scope of its analysis, deeply rooted in Richard Dyer’s article “Diana Ross” and, more in general, in his studies about stardom.

The ability of the author to very carefully select his source materials and to combine them with great skill is immediately evident: after the first brief excerpt of Mahogany, in which the line of dialogue yelled by Ross posits at once the video’s theme—Diana Ross as one of the few black artists who is allowed to experience and celebrate success—the title is impressed over a glamorous still image of her character. The photograph recalls the act of posing, but also the use of stills as fetishes of stars, the central role that slow motion and freeze frames plays in both Mahogany and Kooijman's video, and even, as we learn from Dyer’s article, the live performances of Diana Ross, in which the artist often mimics and re-enacts the stills of her album covers. Then, an edited radio promo declaims, “[…] but most of all, Mahogany is Diana Ross and Diana Ross is Mahogany”, thus clarifying how, according to Kooijman, Ross’ star image is shaped around the successful supermodel Mahogany, the alter-ego of the “real” character Tracy, rather than Tracy herself.

The video manages to convey the complex and layered relationship between the star personae of Ross and Beyoncé by showing the connections between fictional characters (Tracy/Mahogany and Deena Jones from Dreamgirls), biographical elements (both Mahogany and Dreamgirls are based on Ross’ biography), acting performances, and publicity (also Beyoncé’sphotoshooting for L’Officiel Paris evidently mirrors the montage sequence in Mahogany). Moreover, the idea of the two artists as the epitome of an openly celebrated success, their “sheer ecstasy” is very well represented visually by the formal strategy of repetition. The repetition of the same segment (namely, two close-ups of Ross and Beyoncé) with the same written excerpts on them, along with the use of reverse motion and the looped soundtrack, create an hypnotic experience very close to that ecstasy. Repetition here serves both to draw and outline the connection between the two stars and to evoke the fetishistic pleasure of rewatching and replaying a favourite performance. Thus, the video invites us to “enjoy the best and forget the rest,” to “[give ourselves] up to the intoxication of worldly acclaim, of sensuous delight, of luxuriating passivity” (Dyer, 1982:37), while at the same time reminding us — through its written text as well as through the looped sound and uncanny use of reverse motion and repetition — of the artificiality and the studied nature of this success we are, nonetheless, celebrating.

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