Justin Simien's Bad Hair begins with a trauma that many Black women can relate to across the globe--their first perm.
Eager to look like her dazzling older cousin, Linda, pre-teen Anna Bludso looks longingly at a box of relaxer while the creamy crack sits in her coils and kinks. Unfortunately, the result is disastrous. Just minutes later, the chemicals penetrate her scalp and clumps of hair snap from the roots. Her shrill scream zips the audience forward in time to Los Angeles in 1989.
Anna (Elle Lorraine), now a grown woman, lives with the painful memory and a scar from her first and only relaxer. Currently trusting only her own hands to care for her soft afro, she's become a more timid version of her younger, bolder self. Though she carefully styles her hair with bows and wraps, Anna is virtually invisible at Culture, the music video based TV show where she works. As an executive assistant desperate for her own chance to host a show, she's constantly passed over in an entertainment industry that only finds value in Black women who present like Janet Jackson in her Control era, with long-flowing curls and caramel-to-light skin and Eurocentric features.
When the network's top executive (James Van Der Beek) shakes things up by placing ex-supermodel Zora (Vanessa Williams) at the helm of Culture, she sees promise in Anna, whose ideas have been stolen or ignored for years. However, Zora warns Anna that to seize her spot as host of the new Cult, she needs a new look. Desperate to be seen, Anna suppresses her fear and goes to Virgie (Laverne Cox) for her first sew-in. Though Anna's new look transforms her image and her career, it comes at a cost that she never expected.
With elements of camp and horror, Simien unpacks the awareness and obsession that Black women have with our hair, almost from birth. Bad Hair also taps into the isolation and invisibility that society casts over many dark-skinned Back women in favor of women of other races and lighter skin Black women who may have a more "palatable" look. This messaging becomes most apparent when Anna's uncle (Blair Underwood) is intent on relaying to her the folktale of the moss-haired girl. The story follows an enslaved woman who uses moss from a tree to fashion a wig for herself. Grappling with her own new look, Anna becomes obsessed with the story. However, for the audience, the story never quite connects.
Some of the horror elements, like the terror of Anna's initial sew-in, are masterful, but when Bad Hair leans too far into camp, from blood-sucking hair to golden cat eyes, the film becomes uneven and choppy, leaving the audience feeling jilted.
There are also several problematic images in Bad Hair. For instance, at one point in the film, a woman is sexually assaulted, and though she enacts her revenge, it feels unnecessary to see yet another rape of a Black woman on screen. Brutal images of lynching also seemed to be thrown in for shock value, and there is also an odd moment when Anna is shamed for her sexual desires; desires that seem rather tame to a 21st-century audience.
What the Dear White People creator masters are the texture and nostalgia of Los Angeles during the late 1980s era. From the clothing to the music, and the brilliant use of Kelly Rowland and Usher Raymond to parody R&B singers of the period, many aspects of Bad Hair work on their own. Also, Lorraine is a star. She's stunning and enchanting as Anna, her gleaming smile and ability to shift from timid to vamp entices the audience to lean into her. The rest of the robust Bad Hair cast including Chanté Adams, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Robin Thede, Yaani King Mondschein, Lena Waithe, Michelle Hurd, Jay Pharoah and a slew of others flesh out Anna's world.
Bad Hair had all of the right bones to stack up well, but in the end, despite the great acting and nuances of Black womanhood, especially as it pertains to our relationship with our hair, in a film with so many layers and themes crammed into its 115 minutes run time, Bad Hair doesn't quite know what it wants to say, leaving its audience stumbling around for answers.
Bad Hair premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2020.
Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide
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