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Review: Donyale Luna doc gives due to Black Catholic fashion pioneer

An HBO Max film released in the fall showcases the nation's first Black supermodel, a troubled and triumphant Detroit-born force who broke barriers.

Donyale Luna in 1966. (Roy Milligan/The Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty)

The “Donyale Luna: Supermodel” documentary, streaming now on HBO Max, literally hits close to home. My mother and uncle went to middle school with Luna here in Detroit. As a fashion enthusiast, I found it amazing to get a glimpse of the life of the first Black supermodel. Director Nailah Jefferson insightfully and brilliantly illustrates the life of the Black Catholic history maker who took the fashion world by storm.

Luna, born Peggy Ann Freeman, was raised in the Motor City and would go on to wow the fashion scene in the 1960s. Her career took her from New York to London to Italy, where she died in 1979 at the age of 33 from a drug overdose in Rome. 

The first African-American model to grace the cover of Vogue, she led a singular life marked with trials and triumphs. Jefferson artfully delves into the mystery that was Luna.

Featuring interviews with family, friends, contemporaries, and fashion insiders, “Supermodel” reveals Luna in all her complexity and in light of the times she lived in. Before such names as Naomi and Tyra, there was Donyale, who opened doors when Whiteness was the mainstay of beauty. She caught the eye of such luminaries as Richard Avedon and Federico Fellini. 

Yet, for all the barriers she broke, she faced the struggle of lacking full acceptance in the industry and in her personal life. The passage of time would see her story go increasingly unknown, but Jefferson, in collaboration with Luna’s daughter Dream Cazzaniga, reveals Luna in her many facets.

One facet that didn’t get much attention in the documentary, however, is the role of Catholicism in Luna’s life. According to ex-boyfriend Sanders Bryant III, Luna joined the Church in her teens. A scene in the documentary even alludes to her being discovered when in her Catholic school uniform. While little is talked about in terms of her relationship to the faith, Luna’s husband mentioned her being rejected by his parents for a lifestyle not in conformity with their traditional Catholic values. In addition, some of her writings read in the film suggest an attunement to the transcendent.

One-of-a-kind and alluring, Donyale Luna blazed trails and led a singular life. That life would see her change the face of beauty while at the same time face many challenges on the road to get there, and to where she wanted to be personally. Her dynamic tale would go untold for many years. “Supermodel” thoughtfully and touchingly brings to light this unsung figure to the world. For anyone into fashion or a look into a unique personality, this documentary should be on the must-stream list.

Rana Irby is a freelance writer from Detroit, focused on the intersections of faith and culture.

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