I was 19 when I read Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” It was never assigned in the west Texas high school I attended, so I decided to add it to the stack of books I packed on my first deployment.
It was the first book I’d read by Morrison. It wasn’t long before a sense of foreboding draped itself over my shoulders as the life of Pecola Breedlove, an 11-year-old Black girl who desperately wants to be as “beautiful and beloved as all the blonde, blue-eyed children in America,” unfolded before me.
I wasn’t ready for the naked horror of white supremacy, anti-Black beliefs, misogynoir, and sexual assault visited upon Pecola. By the time I reached the end of the book, I chucked it across the room in rage and devastation.
I was unprepared for the way “The Bluest Eye” cracked me open. I didn’t have the language to articulate the pain embedded in what I’d read.
But I’ve never forgotten Pecola or that terrible sense of unease.
Just a few days ago I made the decision to watch the new HBO documentary, “Donyale Luna: Supermodel.” Suddenly, all these years later, that stifling sense of unease returned.
Luna is the first Black supermodel to appear on the covers of “Harper’s Bazaar” and “Vogue.” The documentary is advertised as forgotten fashion history about a beautiful Black woman, who lived a life unheard and intangible for most Black women in the `60s. However, the real story of the documentary is that Luna didn’t want to be Black and did everything she could to distance herself from Black people.
Director Nailah Jefferson breaks Luna’s story into five parts revolving around the places she lived—Detroit, New York, London, Paris, and Rome—over the course of her 33 years.
The documentary picks up the pace as we learn what life was like for young Peggy Ann Freeman, aka Donyale Luna, through her surviving sisters.
My first hint that something was amiss was during the initial interview with Luna’s younger sister, Lillian Washington.
“My mama looked like Queen Elizabeth” Washington says. “I used to say that, and that’s where Donyale got the majority of her beauty. The light complexion she got from my mother. You see my father was quite handsome too. Even though he was a brown-skinned caramel-colored Black man. And I had the same complexion, I always felt that I wasn’t pretty, you know, as her. I never felt that I was pretty.”
We get shallow context about life in the Freeman household, but by all accounts, things were difficult. Luna’s parents were locked in an unstable and volatile relationship, creating tension and uncertainty in the household. On top of all that, she was tall and unusual looking, which of course doesn’t make life as a Black teenager easier. It’s within this time span that Donyale Luna is born. She creates this new identity, accent, and begins telling people that she’s mixed-race.
She also meets a photographer during this time and two years later contacts him when she decides to head to New York.
There, she finds success quickly. She’s able to work instinctively in front of the camera and creates beautiful images in collaboration with talented photographers, but it isn’t long before she runs up against the racist powers that be. They stop her momentum, and she retreats to London. It’s in Europe we learn Luna has embraced her alter ego more thoroughly, telling journalists she’s mixed race and further distancing herself from Black people and the civil rights movement.
It's this part of the documentary where I find myself struggling to empathize with Luna, but before I completely write her off, I remind myself of two things: One, we are all indoctrinated into white supremacy. It’s a violent process that wears on everyone’s psyche constantly in ways we don’t always understand, and often don’t have the language to explain what is happening to us. And two, my instinct to write off Luna’s inability to navigate these experiences as being weak could be, and likely was, anti-Black.
Look, it pissed me off that this Black woman—walking around looking like a whole-a— Black woman—was wearing lighter make-up and blue contacts in order to appear closer to white, but I hesitated to simply label her as weak. The word didn’t feel right and my instinct to use it to describe what was happening felt like internalized white supremacy on my end. How could I be mad at this woman for not performing the strong Black woman stereotype? She seemed, based solely on what’s presented in the documentary, fragile. She found a way to cope with life by pretending to be more than what her family, community, or society at large could imagine her to be.
Aren’t Black women already doing that to some extent every day of their lives? Being more than what people can imagine them to be.
I could be frustrated about Luna’s choices and the fact that so many in her life failed to encourage her to get help or face her reality, but I couldn’t pretend she got to the place of cosplaying various ethnic groups on her own.
When talking about white supremacy we tend to focus on the physical and tangible dangerous aspects of it, but often are expected to bare or overcome the psychological weight of it. Death under that oppressive force can come in many ways—the end of a noose, the piercing of a bullet, or a thousand cuts to the psyche.
Luna’s death seemed to stem from the latter.
After hitting the glass ceiling again in London, she moved to Paris. Jefferson talks to two white men who knew and worked with Luna during that time. They share a lot of surface anecdotes about her, but they have no in-depth insights about who she was at her core, or answers to why she distanced herself from her Black ancestry. They talk about her beauty, the fun they had together, the drugs they did. These men are sure to perform befuddlement at others in the fashion industry’s preoccupation with Luna’s race but assure the audience that race didn’t matter to them. They simply provide more instances about how she entered white fashion spaces hoping for recognition and acceptance and was subsequently cast aside for being Black.
Luna finds herself in Rome where she meets, Luigi Cazzaniga, the man who will become her husband. The story of this relationship and marriage is startlingly anemic. They meet, they do drugs, they fall in love, they get married, and have a baby.
His family is described as conservative Catholics. They were not happy with his choice of a wife and did not want to see Luna—some mess about her wanting to drop marijuana over Vatican City—but they did welcome their granddaughter into their home.
One day Cazzaniga, Luna, and the baby go to visit his parents in Rome and spend the night. However, Luna is not allowed in the Cazzaniga home so she must go sleep at a friend’s place, while he and the baby sleep at his parents’. Luna suffers an overdose and dies that night.
Had this been a book, I would have thrown it across the room.
I wanted so badly for Jefferson to ask Cazzaniga if he ever thought about how his family’s prejudice against Luna—or his failure to protect her from it—might have played into her death. Is it a nice question to ask a widow? No, but it’s one that needs asking. I wanted to know if he’d ever thought about how she might have felt being shunned from what was supposed to be her new family.
Instead, all we’re left with is a bulls—t scene of father and daughter talking about Luna as if she met her end via some unfortunate disease. I suppose in a way she did.
“Donyale Luna: Supermodel” is not a documentary about the first Black supermodel on “Vogue” and “Harper’s Bazaar.” It’s the story of a woman who was so haunted by the specter of white supremacy she tried to outrun it by remaking herself so thoroughly she lost the thread of reality. She was so desperate for white acceptance that every time she was rejected it must have cut deeply into her psyche. Leaving her a bit more tattered and worn down every time.
The final indignity of carrying and birthing a baby, being 18 months postpartum, shunned by her husband’s family, only to die in a room alone of a heroin overdose is a damn tragedy.
Luna thought she could pretend to be someone other than Peggy Ann Freeman, but wherever you go, there you are.
Rather than looking at Luna’s life and asking the audience to wrestle with the questions, what was the cost of becoming the first Black woman on “Harper’s Bazaar” and “Vogue” and was it worth it? And what does it mean that the first Black woman on major fashion magazines didn’t want to be Black? The audience is left to simply witness the documentary rather than struggle with those questions.
There is real work in asking people to unpack the reality of a Black woman being ashamed of being Black and chasing acceptance of white people and their establishments. We are not walked through the process of what it means to internalize white supremacy, how that may have contributed to the creation of the alter ego; otherwise, why feature her regular public proclamations that she was mixed race—or how all of it played a role in her demise?
Instead, Jefferson presents the facts of Luna’s life then asks us to celebrate the accomplishments that helped her to an early grave because … representation?
Kyle Hagler sums up what, I guess, Jefferson wants us to actually walk away from the film believing.
“Some people might say that she should have done more in terms of the advocacy for our people, but then others might also say, and argue, that her being in these predominantly white spaces was an act of revolution in itself,” Hagler says.
At the end of “The Bluest Eye” Morrison writes, “The little black girl yearns for the blue eyes of a white girl, and the horror at the heart of her yearning is exceeded only by the evil of fulfillment. […] “We tried to see her without looking at her, and never, never went near. Not because she was abused, or repulsive, or because we were frightened, but because we had failed her.”
So many people failed Luna. This documentary fails her and its audience.
Perdita Patrice is a Texas-based writer and documentary filmmaker. She enjoys live music, reading, and watching TV. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @perditapatrice