Whether reality TV has changed the course of culture or just intensified a tendency already present, it seems like now, people all view themselves as potential stars of their own shows. That goes double, at least, for public figures like fashion designer Ozwald Boateng, the star—the right word in this context—of Varon Bonicos’ debut documentary, A Man’s Story. Near the beginning of the film, Bonicos brags in voiceover that he followed Boateng for 12 years, from 1998 to 2010, as he went from promising newcomer to Givenchy designer, then went out on his own, becoming the first black tailor with a shop in London’s Saville Row. But for all the time he spent, Bonicos rarely catches his subject in an unguarded moment, or achieves any sense of intimacy. Even when he isn’t directly addressing the camera, Boateng is aware of its presence—perhaps not surprising, given that he was once the subject of his own reality TV show, House Of Boateng. When Bonicos films the reality-TV cameras filming Boateng, it recalls the Mr. Show sketch where a TV news crew interviews another crew who is in turn interviewing a third—except that Bonicos doesn’t seem to get that the moment makes his own efforts seem superfluous.
Since breaking out on his own in 2007, Boateng has boosted his profile by designing for Hollywood stars, especially but not exclusively African-American ones. (During a red-carpet interview, Will Smith identifies him as “a young black designer from England,” and then stumbles over the spelling of his name.) A Man’s Story catches glimpses of all sorts of famous folk who praise Boateng’s combination of classic tailoring with an African sense of color. The film climaxes with Boateng’s attempt to stage a fashion show in Ghana, the country of his parents’ birth, enlisting Jaime Foxx, Mos Def, and Chris Tucker to draw the media’s attention. But even then, he scrambles for funding, putting in enough of his own money to, by his account, open two new stores. When the show is over, Boateng reflects alone in his office: “Why would you risk so much?… I knew it was right.”
The fact that Boateng is moved to pitch himself softball questions, and that Bonicos keeps this auto-interview in the film, neatly sums up A Man’s Story’s accommodating attitude toward its subject, who never seems to lose track of how he might look in the final cut. Naturally, Boateng emerges looking like a fashion god, though one so devoted to his work that his family life inevitably suffers. Trouble is, even a finely tailored suit needs a body to fill it, and A Man’s Story never gets its man.