Bad Hair Review
Justin Simien (who wrote and directed the film and TV versions of Dear White People) directs Bad Hair, which introduces us to the timid Anna (Elle Lorraine), who works for TV studio Culture, the black culture-focused section of an MTV-style network in the '80s. She faces daily microaggressions, dismissals and is regularly overlooked due to her afro hair and quiet nature. It is suggested by some of the women Anna works with that she gets a weave, replacing her natural hair with straight, “better” hair. Traumatised by burns from a relaxing treatment as a child that left her with deep scars, she is reluctant but goes ahead with it anyway and comes away from a salon (staffed by Laverne Cox) $500 poorer but with straight hair. The sequence where the “treatment” takes place is disturbing and gruesome, as she literally bleeds as the hair is sewn to her scalp. For Anna though, she believes it’s worth it, as it is supposed to improve her life and career prospects.
And it does, for a while, as things begin to change at Culture. In an effort to become more marketable to commercial audience, the studio moves away from its roots, with varying responses from those who work there. Anna becomes the new associate producer, and steadily builds in confidence thanks to the position and status provided by her new hair. Unfortunately, the hair also has some side effects, as it seems to have a mind of its own and a bit of a thirst for blood.
Bad Hair has a bit of a silly concept, and definitely fits into the mould of a black comedy, but the film also has some statements to make about equality and double standards that have only become more relevant in the time since it is set. Simien looks at the relationship between Black people and their hair, cultural appropriation and prejudice based on simply choosing a natural appearance. It reflects how those microaggressions can affect Black people's lives and force them to needlessly spend more, putting themselves through the pain barrier simply to be afforded the same opportunities as their white peers.
It also addresses aspects of inherited trauma and how differences in mythology and culture can be disrespected by those who don’t understand their true power. The cast is almost entirely Black and that means even those who are hurt by the possessed hair are mostly Black, perhaps referencing that those who continue to be oppressed by these beauty standards are also Black, but that it remains invisible to those who aren’t affected by it. James Van Der Beek plays a white producer called Grant who shows up occasionally to pat everyone on their back and tell them how great they’re doing, disappearing unaffected and unaware of everything happening beneath the surface.
The mythology elements of the plot address some of the inherited trauma faced by Black people and people of colour in white majority countries, as their stories are ridiculed and portrayed as less civilised and more primitive, which like so many American folk stories begins with a fear of being different. The winning aspect is that it allows those ancestors to re-empower themselves in a way that Anna isn’t able to by herself. Her ancestors are angry, and they use her weakness as a tool to seek their revenge.
Some of this subtext is unfortunately lost in how silly things become, and you have to wonder if it would have been more affecting had it been played straight. How that would work with possessed hair though is anybody’s guess. Unfortunately, it also isn’t quite funny enough to work as a horror-comedy, but again, it may resonate more with Black audiences. It has the feel of a TV show rather than a feature film with the threadbare plot not enough to fill the entire runtime. Watched in a relaxed environment with friends (depending on local lockdown rules, of course), Bad Hair might spark a discussion, though, and that can only ever be a good thing.
Bad Hair is available to watch on Hulu from October 23.