At nine years old my hair was course, and considered too hard to manage. The solution was to put a Revlon super perm in my hair to “tame it.” A few hours later I was bald, with a head full of chemical burns. That moment has stuck with me as an adult. My family taught me straight hair was prettier because that’s what society told us was acceptable. What we see in the media influences what we think, and since the media is dominated by white culture that’s what we emulate. There is power in hair and that is what writer/director Justin Simien tries to convey in his new film Bad Hair, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. However, the point he’s trying to make gets stifled by the narrative as it shifts between camp and horror. Maintaining Black hair in America is it’s own horror story, so the embellishments seem unnecessary.
Anna (newcomer Elle Lorraine) is a mousy, yet determined woman trying to work her way up the corporate ladder. Her natural hair is considered “nappy” and unattractive, and is deemed the source of her misfortune. Her love life is in shambles, she doesn’t make enough to pay the rent, she is pushed, shoved and ignored by society. Anna is constantly told the only way to stand out is to get a straight weave, which in 1989 where the film takes place, weave was becoming highly popular among Black women. Once she gives in to societal pressure, she decides getting a weave will change her life, and it does, just not the way she thinks it will.
Anna has qualms about her hair. As a child she was scared by a perm gone wrong. The experience of getting the weave is just as torturous, and provides one of the most unsettling, disturbing scenes I’ve seen in a horror film in a long time. When her hair is done, she feels beautiful, confident, is noticed more by men and women, but the pain from the ordeal lingers. As she wears the style longer, she notices the hair has a life of its own, it refuses to be cut or styled, and is a danger to society. Does Anna give in and let the hair control her, or will she fight against convention of straightness to save her soul?
Simien deserves credit because there is nothing like this within the horror genre featuring a Black lead He takes his influences from Korean and Japanese horror films, and shoots the film on 16mm to give the visuals that 80s B-horror movie vibe. Simien is a competent director with an eye for unique shots, great staging, and finding raw talent.
Actress Elle Lorraine may be a new, but is a natural talent. Her cutesy demeanor gives way to rage and aggression seamlessly. There is nothing awkward about her performance, and her character arc experiences a clear change that she displays so well. She will be one to watch in 2020.
Simien aims for complexity of plot instead of making a solid statement on how to view the hair and its actions. We see the brutalizations of Black bodies far more than the supposed omnipotent enemy that is white supremacy. Unfortunately Bad Hair never makes a clear stance on whether or not the movie is about how the achievement of those aesthetics divide the community, or if this is a fight against the status quo.
We know Black hair is demonized by society at large (DeAndre Arnold, a high school teen in Texas is currently barred from walking with his graduation class unless he cuts his dreadlocks), and how easy it is to look like a sell out in order to fit in. One thing the film IS clear about is no matter how you try to escape white influence and control—it is impossible to do. Are Black women just under a spell in this film or are they going to use this power to dismantle systemic injustice? What is the purpose of the hair’s existence and power if it’s still under the control of white supremacy?
Bad Hair has its heart in the right place and Simien should be applauded for bringing the struggles of Black hair to a wider audience. This film will hopefully get others talking, listening, asking questions, and figuring out solutions on how to erase the stigma around Black hair, but the story only exist to introduce the struggle, not expand upon it. These experiences are so deeply personal to Black women of this generation, blood, guts, and camp may not be the best way to express this story.
This review is from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Bad Hair is currently without distribution.
Valerie is a military veteran, movie nerd and freelance writer. As a lover of Japanese animation, comics, and all things film, she is passionate about inclusion across all entertainment mediums. She has reported from the Sundance Film Festival and SXSW Film Festival and from the Cannes Film Festival for AwardsWatch in 2019. You can find Valerie on Twitter at @ValerieComplex.