Cultural appropriation and gentrification have dwindled down to buzzwords – quick utterances and headline grabs instead of raw in-depth conversations about the havoc and devastation that occur when these processes are implemented. Filmmaker Mariama Diallo and producer Valerie Steinberg wanted to examine how destructive cultural appropriation is to black culture specifically in an age where mega-popular white social influencers are desperately trying to claim black art and history for themselves.
With her film Hair Wolf, Diallo moves beyond a straightforward conversation about the commodification of the black identity – choosing instead to subvert the norm and present her perspective in a horror comedy. Set in modern-day Brooklyn, Hair Wolf centers around a black beauty shop whose staff must fend off a terrifying monster – a white woman determined to suck the life out of black culture.
The film won the Sundance Jury Award in the U.S. short film competition at the Sundance Film Festival. Recently, I sat down to chat with Diallo about Hair Wolf and why it was so necessary for her to make. "There are several layers to the whole origin story of the film," Diallo chuckled. "On the most immediate level, I was outside my apartment building with my dog and my boyfriend, and I saw a box braid lying on the ground. On any given Brooklyn early morning, you might find a bit of weave or like whatever else it may be. When I saw the box braid, I pointed to it and said to him, ‘Braid?’ (My boyfriend) misheard me, he thought I’d said, “Brain." So we had a very amusing conversation about zombies and hair salons and zombies in hair salons. That just seemed like a really fun idea to me."
At that moment, while examining a fallen braid on the streets of Brooklyn, Diallo began to explore some of the issues that had been bothering her -- concerns that she’d been unable to really discuss and digest prior. Social media, of course, has put cultural appropriation at the forefront of our society. "I would say a huge part of my fascination with the story is this aesthetic that's arisen through Instagram, amongst other places, which pulls on a bunch of different cultural elements," Diallo explained. "I'm thinking about a Kardashian-popularized Instagram aesthetic where there are many parts clearly pulled from black women. Full lips, hair and certain features that seem to be directly taken from observing black culture and sometimes popularized by black women. The weird thing is there’s this sort of melding that goes on. The white ones are self-tanning hardcore, and they're making themselves browner. Meanwhile, the black ones are using pale foundation and doing all sorts of tricks and traps to make themselves look lighter. They're all meeting in the middle resembling each other. In a way, it is fed by these YouTube videos where somebody shows you how to contour your face and do this and that. It's very paint by the numbers so that anyone who follows the tutorials ends up looking the same. But, it's also very alarming in a way that I think works very well with horror."
Horror does exactly seem like the most natural genre to house discussions surrounding representations of beauty. However, for Diallo and for producer Steinberg who was essential in getting the film made, it was obvious. "It’s this very eerie reproduction of images and of a certain look that makes me think a classic horror and the anxiety of reproduction and body snatchers and everything like that." Diallo expressed. "These are a few of the influences I had in mind when I started writing the script."
In the film, Madeline Weinstein stars as Rebecca, the culture-sucking gentrifier intent on destroying the black salon's stylists. I wanted to know if Diallo had Rachel Dolezal in mind when she began crafting the character. "Rachel Dolezal is really a butt of a lot of my jokes," she laughed. "I find her motivation fascinating. I don't necessarily find her too interesting, but I find her placement within a black cultural and pop cultural context really fun and interesting. I've been as closely amused by all sorts of elements of the Rachel Dolezal story. However, she wasn't very present in my mind as I was making this film. The person who I had in my mind as I was creating that character was Kylie Jenner. There are different theories, but I feel there's a school of thought that I'm very fascinated by which holds that Kylie Jenner owes a lot of her style and influences to Blac Chyna. Blac Chyna herself, at least to me, is heavily influenced by European standards of beauty. It blows my mind to think about this paradox where this white girl, Kylie Jenner, is biting the style of Blac Chyna, who herself is significantly influenced by white standards of beauty. So it's a white girl copying a black woman who is taking influences from white culture, and it's just going on this loop."
For Diallo, the cycle is the true horror story, especially because folks like the Kardashians continue to pillage and appropriate but then get defensive when they are called out on their behavior. The absurdity of it all is something Diallo hopes people will see in the film – at least that’s why she was compelled to put the story on screen. "I think that it's a little bit complicated for me even to unpack because I think that even on the most immediate level I didn't necessarily have something that I wanted people to take away from the film," she revealed. "I certainly had things that I was working through and wanted to talk about. But regarding lessons for the audience, I would hope to leave that to the individual. But for myself, one of the things that was important to me was to underscore the absurdity of the situation. It was important for me not to give too much power to the Rebecca character. She's absolutely absurd, and she's innocuous and also laughable. That was something that was important to me — not moving the film to a realm of tragedy but just of absurdity."
Director Mariama Diallo
In many ways, horror is still a genre that black folks have been closed out of. However, Jordan Peele’s Get Out shattered some of that barrier, and Diallo couldn’t be more thrilled. "Throughout my life horror is the genre that has really spoken to me," she explained. "It most excites me, it's the most immediate. I feel there's something really fun about horror where the stakes are very high and what it seeks to do to an audience, it's really pure. The sensations and emotions that run central to it are less intellectual and more guttural, and that is very interesting to me. When I started writing screenplays several years ago, I started off in more of a drama realm because I felt like that was what one did when they were trying to be serious and respected. However, I realized that I really had to take on the certain films I'd want to see, horror films. Once I realized that, everything fell into place because I realized that I could talk about some of the issues that are really important to me in a way that is not preaching to my audience."
Taking in the whirlwind that was Sundance, Diallo has a ton more projects coming down the pipeline. "I have a beaker script that I am working on that I have completed, and I am working to move into the next phases of development. It's also a horror script," she laughed. "It's set on a college campus, like on an elite northeastern college and basically all about the horror that is contained within.”
Aramide A Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. 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, read her blog at www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami.