Runway model Sandra Bush dreamed of becoming the first African-American supermodel, only to struggle with addiction and despair. But she later achieved celebrity as Mama Bush, the model for some of the best-known and widely admired paintings by her daughter, acclaimed artist Mickalene Thomas.
In her film directing debut, Thomas paints a poignant portrait of her mother and artistic muse, presenting a tender look back at a lifetime’s worth of hopes, regrets and redemption.
Drawing on personal and archival photos, as well as intimate interviews, Mickalene Thomas’ vivid, loving portrait chronicles her mother’s personal and professional struggles, including a turbulent marriage, drug abuse and chronic illness.
Growing up as the daughter of a minister and his devout wife in Camden, NJ, Sandra Bush entered into a disastrous first marriage immediately after high school. Following the birth of Mickalene Thomas and her brother, she fled the problematic union, divorcing her husband.
With characteristic determination and élan, the newly single mother pursued a career as a model in New York City, garnering considerable attention for her willowy frame and aristocratic features, while hosting parties, fashion shows and theater productions to raise money for sickle cell anemia, a hereditary blood disorder that had afflicted her since birth.
But the demand for black models was severely limited in the 1970s and the sudden rise of the slender African beauty Iman dashed Bush’s hopes of stardom.
When Thomas was eight years old, Bush began another ill-fated romance, this time with a drug dealer. After becoming an addict, she entered rehab, rebuilt her life and dedicated herself to spiritual pursuits as a practicing Buddhist. But her misfortunes were not over. In addition to sickle cell anemia, her health was further compromised by rheumatoid arthritis, hyperthyroidism and kidney cancer.
Inspired by her mother’s years of struggle, Thomas asked Bush to pose for a series of sexy, suggestive portraits evocative of ’70s pop culture. The photographs served as the basis for some of Thomas’ most acclaimed paintings and Bush became a muse to her daughter.
“One of the reasons I used my mother is her charisma, her beauty,” says Thomas. “I wasn’t using her because she was sick. I was exploring how a different type of beauty, a different type of aging and a different type of portraiture could come across.”
Despite undergoing dialysis during the filming of HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN, Bush retains a model’s posture and impeccable appearance, even with the enormous toll illness has taken on her spirit. “Right now, I feel empty,” she says. “I’m not the same person as I was two years ago. When I look in the mirror and look at myself, I think, ‘That’s not me.’ I just walk past it.”
Bush’s goal of becoming a top model may have been derailed by bad timing and poor choices, but she finally gains lasting fame as the inspiration for her gifted daughter’s paintings. Though wistful for her youth, she treasures her transformation into an art-world icon known as Mama Bush.
She tells her daughter that she was shocked when first asked to pose. “That’s when I knew I would do anything for you,” she says. “Now, it’s a good feeling to know that people eons on will see me. To work along with you makes me feel as if I have accomplished something. My daughter, you have made me the model of the art world: Mama Bush.”
Sandra Bush died in 2012, shortly after Thomas completed filming of HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN. The title of the film comes from a request she made for her 50th birthday celebration, when friends asked what should be written on her cake. Bush recalls in the film, “I said, ‘Put on there, “Happy birthday to a beautiful woman.”’ And that’s what they did.”
Known primarily for elaborate paintings composed of rhinestones, acrylic and enamel, Mickalene Thomas holds an MFA degree in painting from Yale University. Centering on womanhood and the expanded definition of beauty in today’s society, her work is exhibited extensively both nationally and internationally, and can be found in several significant collections, including those of the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO A BEAUTIFUL WOMAN was conceived and directed by Mickalene Thomas; produced by Tanya Selvaratnam; executive producers, the Lehmann Maupin Gallery, Mickalene Thomas and Lisa Cortés; distribution consultant, Sarah Lash; cinematographers, Shane Sigler and Omar Mullick; editor, Alex Meillier; music by Thomas M. Lauderdale.