Justin Simien’s latest feature premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
Justin Simien’s new horror feature Bad Hair is the story of a woman grappling with her racial identity in an entertainment industry that refuses to reflect her. Anna (Elle Lorraine) works for the BET-like television network Culture in the late ’80s, and suddenly finds herself in the midst of a corporate overhaul as her afro-centric boss Edna (Judith Scott) leaves and is replaced by straight-haired former model Zora (Vanessa Williams). But she’s only the figurehead— the real mastermind behind all these changes is Grant (James Van Der Beek), a white network executive who frames his choices as a last-ditch effort to save the network from shuttering.
Feeling the pressure to conform to the network’s new direction, Anna gets a shockingly painful sew-in weave that she can barely afford from a mysterious hairdresser named Virgie (Laverne Cox). Soon, all the other women in the office are getting the same sew-in, which not only transforms their style but morphs their personality into a more respectable, traditionally attractive mold. But, it’s more than just weave they have in their heads, and soon they find themselves fighting to hold on to their own identities.
Simien, who came on the scene nearly six years ago with his daring feature debut Dear White People, has a vested interest in telling stories about Black women. A viewer can watch his work and see a man trying to explore the complexities of Black women with an understanding of how misogynoir affects the way we move in the world. But good intentions can only take him so far, and there is a sense that he may have reached beyond the scope of Anna’s story in order to bring forth cultural judgments about Black women’s hair that aren’t really his to make. As things get worse for Anna, she finds herself reading slave-era folklore, suggesting there is an inherent evil in the pursuit of straight hair. By the end of the film, it’s hard to know what Simien is trying to say about Black women.
In 2020, I think it’s fair to ask why it is that Simien is telling this story. It’s past due for us, as a culture, to have this conversation about our Black male cinematic voices. At some point we must begin to reckon with the way that Black men have shaped American culture’s understanding of Black women, our personalities, sexuality and our hair. The current popularization of Black women filmmakers is a belated correction to decades of thought suggesting that the Black male voice also doubles for ours, especially in the eyes of the non-black filmgoer. This is not to say that Black male directors need to stop making films about us, but rather, make room for their films to be in conversation with ours.
It’s a shame then that Bad Hair, which was purchased by Hulu, is peerless, at least in terms of longform narrative features. Good Hair, the 2009 documentary starring Chris Rock, was directed by a white man — comedian Jeff Stilson — and it’s glib, uninspired construction reflects that. Haifaa al-Mansour’s Nappily Ever After is the closest we have to depicting a Black woman’s perspective, mainly due to it being an adaptation of Trisha R. Thomas’ novel of the same name. There is also Hemamset Angaza’s brilliant, underrated documentary In Our Heads About Our Hair, which emphasizes Black women’s perspective masterfully while still having a Black man behind the camera.
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Bad Hair, while powerful in its first half exploring Anna and her past, falters as it tries to understand Black women as a collective. Still, it should be commended for trying. There is only one film to my knowledge that has attempted to dig deeper: Mariama Diallo’s horror short Hair Wolf, which also grapples with the volatile confrontation between Black women’s hair and Eurocentric beauty standards. As dramatic work has a tendency to be overwrought, horror is a great avenue to explore the complexities of Black hair. But, in having these discussions, it is important to center the voices and perspectives of those most directly affected by discriminatory beauty standards. It’s difficult being told to step back and make room for other voices, but ultimately the results create a more varied and richer conversation. Films like Bad Hair reveal how much Black men don’t seem to know about Black women.
Jourdain Searles is a writer, comedian, and podcaster who hails from Georgia and resides in Queens. She has written for Bitch Media, Thrillist, The Ringer, and MTV News. As a comic, she has performed stand-up in venues all over New York City, including Union Hall, The People Improv’s Theater, UCB East, and The Creek and the Cave. She can be found on Twitter.