Tracy Chambers is a sassy industrious young woman living in the projects of Chicago who dreams of becoming a fashion designer. She has worked her way up from salesgirl to secretary and assistant to the head buyer at a luxury department store (modeled after, and filmed at, Marshall Field's on State Street, Chicago). Her supervisor at the department store, Miss Evans (Nina Foch), does not support Tracy's desire to be a designer. She dissuades her from taking the night class due to her belief that it is interfering with Tracy doing her job for her effectively. In actuality Tracy is attempting to bring her dream of being a designer into fruition. She visits her aunt who works in a factory and gives her designs to sew together for her and she visits buyers to see if anyone will purchase her designs. There are no takers as well as comments made to her that the designs are good for Paris but not Chicago. She does not give up though.
One day a great photographer, Sean, played by Anthony Perkins, comes to the department store to shoot models, all Caucasian. He is clearly dissatisfied with the models and the shoot. Tracy and Miss Evans come in to observe and see what they can do for him. As soon as Tracy meets him she begins to talk about what a great photographer he is, Miss Evans cuts her off by asking her to fetch chairs for the models and coffee for herself and Sean. When Sean first sees Tracy he says that she is the type of model that he is looking for not realizing that she is Miss Evans secretary. Miss Evans then insists that she is only a secretary to which Sean insists that he has found a great model. Tracy is smitten with the attentions of the photographer because he is a conduit into the world of fashion that she is working so hard to get into but she is not romantically interested in him. When his time is done in Chicago he lets her know that she would do great in Rome and that he will be sending for her in the future. She takes that news with a grain of salt.
One night, while coming home from her art class, she is verbally accosted by Brian Walker (Billy Dee Williams), a local activist trying to make the neighborhood aware of the gentrification taking place in their community and attempting to drum up support for change. Tracy is tired and somewhat beleaguered by her circumstances. When Brian directly addresses her through the bullhorn as she walks past him, she then begins to exchange verbal slings with him because she is in no mood. During the verbal exchange, an upstairs neighbor looks out his window and yells at Brian about making so much noise late at night while opening a can of beer and some of the foam falls on Tracy. Everyone laughs, except for Tracy who then, in a beer-soaked huff, heads up to her apartment.
Tracy again encounters Brian during her walk to work. She sees and hears him talking through a bullhorn while neighborhood buildings are being demolished. The construction workers make comments meant to annoy Brian, such as that the neighborhood is better with the rat infested buildings coming down. However, Brian decides that he will not retaliate and continues to speak about the situation. At one point, Brian puts the bullhorn down and Tracy sees her chance to get back at him for their last encounter. While no one is looking, she pours milk into the mouthpiece. When he picks it up, the milk splatters all over him. For Brian, this is the last straw. He assumes that one of the construction workers has done it and a free for all fight begins. The police are called and Brian is taken to jail.
When Brian is let out, he finds Tracy waiting outside the police station. She tells him that she bailed him out because it was she who had poured the milk. She also tells him that she has written a bum check for his bail and they high tail it away from the precinct. He tells her that he will give it back to her and he then talks about when. She tells him that she is not interested in him and that she was only relieving her guilty conscience for the misunderstanding which put him in jail. He insists that he will return the money and so she tells him to put it in the mail slot.
One night she hears coins, lots of them, being placed in her mail slot. She opens the slot and tons of change fall to the floor. She opens the door and finds Brian is in the hallway. They begin a relationship at that point and Brian becomes her boyfriend. Their relationship includes her assisting in his running unsuccessfully for office in the district. The same night when Brian insists Tracy give up her dreams for his, Tracy receives a call from Sean (Anthony Perkins) to come to Rome and she flees in the middle of the night to become his muse.
Sean reinvents Tracy as "Mahogany" and ultimately she becomes among the most in-demand fashion models. An uneasy relationship develops with Sean, who is possessive and jealous of anyone vying for Tracy's attention. He struggles to control Tracy sexually and artistically by discouraging her attempts to break away from modeling and further her design aspirations. Tracy, feeling she owes Sean a great deal for bringing her into a world where she has wealth and fame, reluctantly agrees to sleep with him. Sean's implied or latent homosexuality makes the union a failure. Sean goes on to menace and threaten Brian, who visits Tracy in Rome. Brian fails to persuade Tracy to return home with him to support him in his political aspirations, and Tracy remains behind with Sean. This leads to tragic consequences and a new, wealthy benefactor for Tracy who finally helps her realize her design ambitions.
Tracy becomes demanding, cruel to her employees, and unwilling to express her appreciation to her new benefactor by becoming his mistress. She finds her career is not all she dreamed it would be without the love and support of Brian. Tracy realizes she must decide whether to continue with her material lifestyle and loveless relationship in Rome or return to the man she loves in Chicago.Diana Ross as Tracy Chambers
Billy Dee Williams as Brian Walker
Anthony Perkins as Sean McAvoy
Jean-Pierre Aumont as Count Christian Rosetti
Beah Richards as Florence
Nina Foch as Miss Evans
Marisa Mell as Carlotta Gavina
Lenard Norris as Wil
Jerome Arnold as Campaign Worker
Pemon Rami as Campaign Worker
Obelo as Campaign Worker
Ira Rogers as Stalker
Kristine Cameron as Instructress
Ted Liss as Sweatshop Foreman
Bruce Vilanch as Dress Manufacturer
Don Howard as Dress Manufacturer
Albert Rosenberg as Dress Manufacturer
Marvin Corman as Cab Driver
E. Rodney Jones as Radio Announcer (voice)
Dan Daniel as Giuseppe (as Daniel Daniele)
Princess Irene Galitzine as Princess Irene Galitzine
Jacques Stany as Auctioneer – Fashion Show
Achille Brugnini as Salesman (as Achille Brunini)
Edward Van Sickle as Ad Agency Executive (as Edward Van Sycle)
Giovanni Di Benedetto as Ad Agency Executive (as Gianni Di Benedetto)
Roger Bill Brown as Ad Agency Executive
C. Mitchell as Ad Agency Executive
Denise Gordy (uncredited)
Jesse Kitten as Unemployed Lathe Operator (uncredited)
Robert Townsend – Extra (uncredited)
The film and its soundtrack include a Ross-sung theme song, "Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going To)", which became a #1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1976. It held the number-one spot for one week (January 18–January 24, 1976), replacing "I Write the Songs" by Barry Manilow and replaced by "Love Rollercoaster" by the Ohio Players. "Theme from Mahogany", written by Michael Masser and Gerald Goffin and produced by Masser, was the best-reviewed element of Mahogany and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song. The song was later covered by Mariah Carey in 1998 and Sony Music labelmate Jennifer Lopez the following year.
The film was nominated for the best original song Academy Award (Michael Masser, Gerry Goffin).
2004: AFI's 100 Years...100 Songs:
"Theme from Mahogany (Do You Know Where You're Going To)" – Nominated
The film is recognized by American Film Institute in these lists:
Mahogany was released on VHS home video in the 1990s, and was issued on DVD on May 1, 2007.
Reviews are mostly negative and it currently holds a 23% rating at Rotten Tomatoes.