Mahogany came out a little bit before my time. Still, I had always heard so much talk about how classic the piece was. And since the film is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, I decided to see what all the hype was about. If we’re being honest here, it’s far from classic film. Still, the movie is iconic, in several ways, for several reasons. So in honor of its anniversary and the doors it opened for other Black actresses and directors, we’re sharing a few secrets you might not have known.
Many of you know that Berry Gordy directed the film. But that wasn’t always the original plan. Tony Richardson was the original director. In fact, they had already started shooting. But according to an interview Gordy gave to Jet Magazine, Robinson was dismissed after a random spectator in Chicago noticed that the dialogue that the actors were delivering wasn’t indicative of proper “Black English.” He called out, “People don’t talk like that in the ghetto.” Since Motown produced the film, Gordy was on set and heard his comment. He decided to make some changes. Starting with the top. He fired the director and took on the project himself to make it more realistic.
Gordy told Jet, “I could better relate to these Black brothers and sisters (than could the white directors) because they talked and acted like I did when I lived in the Detroit ghetto.”
And since the man that called out was able to explain to Gordy what “Black English” sounded like in the hood, he hired him to star in the film. Jerome Arnold ended up playing alongside Billy Dee Williams as one of his campaign workers.
The Theme Song
And you already know if Gordy was taking on a new role with directing, he was going to have his hands in the pot when it came to the music. The theme song, “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To) which plays probably every five minutes in the film, was initially considered unacceptable by the Academy. They said because of “quality standards.” However, Gordy successfully lobbied the Academy into nominating it for an Oscar. It didn’t win though.
Topping the charts
Though the Academy didn’t have much love for “The Theme From Mahogany,” the people loved it. It topped the Billboard charts for a week in 1976. The song was often the best-reviewed part of the film.
If the song was a hit with critics, the fashion has got to be the most beloved by fans. The most visually interesting elements of the film came in the form of Tracy’s attire. Surprisingly, Diana Ross was behind a lot of those outfits. She designed over 50 pieces for the film as fashion design was a passion of hers. She actually studied it in high school. She told Ebony, “But the only opportunity I ever had in this direction was in my own personal wear when I was with the Supremes. I used to talk to the guys who designed our clothes and I’d tell them exactly what I thought we should wear.” Even though she had this experience, it still took some campaigning of her own. She said to “do some real persuading” when it came to Berry Gordy. Ross was assisted by Susan Gertsman, the daughter of a clothing manufacturer in L.A.
You can check out her work here.
Mahogany wasn’t an original idea. It was based on the short story written by Toni Amber.
Motown put quite a bit of money into making sure this film came to fruition. The film cost $5 million to make and ended up being a box office success.
With $5 million dollars, they were still on a relatively tight shooting schedule. The film took 11 weeks to shoot in both Chicago and Rome.
What did the critics think?
Though it did well with the people, critics generally thought the movie was terrible. Berry Gordy said the at the movie received “the worst reviews in the history of the world.”
Diana Ross, who had a huge hand in the film, starring, promoting and even working on the costumes said that she hoped people “…will walk away from the theater thinking of me as a total performer and not just a singer-turned actress.”
Hmm…do you think she accomplished her goal?