Bad Hair is the latest feature from writer/director Justin Simien (Dear White People). It examines oppression through the scope of female beauty standards and expectations while also confronting Black female oppression and the corporate manipulation of Black culture for white palatability. However, while the film is thematically strong, its lackluster horror elements are inhibiting its true potential.
Set in 1989, the film follows Anna (Elle Lorraine) in her desperate effort to land and hold a job in the entertainment field. Her office at Culture, a music television channel by Black people for Black people, is subservient to the white-led company for which Grant Madison (James Van Der Beek) calls the shots. He decides that Culture needs revamping, and step one is promoting Zora (Vanessa Williams), a light-skinned, green-eyed, weave-wearing model — an agreeable image of Blackness — into the boss position. Pressured to fit in and stand out, Anna also gets a weave, but there’s more there than hair. The weave has a mind of its own and functions both as a shield and a sewn-in weapon.
Whiteness is habitually posited as the canvas on which everything else is drawn and based — the default. Blackness is seen as extraneous, the other, with its “success” contingent on the willingness and ability to be proximal to whiteness. These standards are what set the stage for the context of the film’s era and Anna’s plight.
Bad Hair makes excellent narrative use of its time frame, which is aligned with the cultural upswing of hip hop music. Prior to the 1990s, hip hop was still relatively confined to the Black community. With its evolution into popular culture, it was important for business executives to figure out how to break the bond between hip hop and the “niche” exclusivity of Blackness. The attempted erasure and redefinition was executed with the purpose of gaining the favor, and funds, of white audiences. Image is everything, and Bad Hair wisely utilizes this cultural and historical context to construct its grounded world-building.
The film is versatile in its depiction of oppressive beauty standards as well, and how white standards don’t leave any image of Blackness untouched. The lead R&B superstar featured on Culture is Sandra (Kelly Rowland). Despite her being a dark-skinned Black woman, the other women in the office make observations regarding her appearance: they note her weave firstly, but also her contoured nose. As the title suggests, Bad Hair‘s concern with anti-Black standards is directly laced with the beauty standards revolving around hair. Anna is asked if she’s tired of her hair, the looks she gets because of it, and the fact that no one takes her seriously with it. In order to be promoted, she needs to “flow freely,” a tongue-in-cheek comment that insults Anna and gaslights her into submission.
The entirety of Bad Hair is apt in its portrayal of these nuances, smartly exploring the enforcement of the rigidity of anti-Blackness, especially as it pertains to capitalist motivation and personal insecurity. The most emotional statement of the film isn’t implicit but is instead relayed to Anna from her uncle. “From the moment you were born,” he tells her, “you were so thoroughly indoctrinated by the insanity of Western European worldviews that you can’t bear to see yourself the way nature would have.”
Anna is often ridiculed and undermined in her work environment, and Bad Hair equally confronts types of supremacy in the corporate environment. “The Block,” a segment on Culture’s cable channel, was Anna’s idea, but it was handed to Julius (Jay Pharaoh) for him to capitalize on: i.e. patriarchal oppression. This exact circumstance happens again, except this time, Zora becomes the face instead of Anna: i.e. colorist oppression.
Believe it or not, all of these samples of oppression are only supplemental to the main horror of the film: that goddamn sew-in. Bad Hair is extremely inventive in rendering the painstaking pressure of Western beauty standards into poignant body horror, both in the realms of reality and surrealism.
In Bad Hair‘s opening scene, Anna gets a nasty burn from her relaxer, which leaves a thick, lasting scar on the back of her head. This scar is a remnant — a memory — of the seed of doubt and pressure that is planted in and plaguing Black girlhood when the concept of “good hair” is first introduced. As she grazes her fingers over this scar as an adult, the film swiftly rifles through flashbacks of it all, and we are made to know that the remembrance of doubt is still there. Even when she wears her hair proudly, it, and she, are left to be exploited.
Many Black women are familiar with the pain of being tenderheaded and/or enduring lye burns from perms, so watching Anna will her way through them is painful. It’s not simply in these moments when we bear witness to Lorraine’s incredible performance, but her reactions are near guaranteed to have some viewers clutching their heads. The trauma of it all comes not only from the afflictions of her scalp but also from the fact that she’s not freely choosing to do it for fashion. Instead, she’s doing it for the sake of oppressive conformity — for “success.” She’s working in a job and living in a world that tells her to flatten and morph her Blackness to racist standards, and the stakes are too high for her to afford.
These scenes are shot cleverly, showing ultra close-ups of parted hair and rows of follicles (sure to reignite the trypophobia that some of you discovered while watching American Horror Story: Cult). Aside from this tangible, physical pain, surrealist horror presents itself because the weave has its own life force: it sucks blood, strangles, and mangles. It feeds on Anna’s insecurity but often acts in defense of her as well, resulting in a thoughtful examination of the capability of a volatile idealized relationship between a Black woman and her hair.
This concept is incredible, but admittedly, its execution habitually falls flat. Bad Hair is definitely aiming for a campy spook-factor, but the film as a whole doesn’t commit to this camp enough to justify the lackluster horror elements. The majority of the film takes itself rather seriously, so when the depiction of the horror suspends so much disbelief, it feels incongruous. In the same vein, the humor hardly works either, often feeling forced or out of tone (this could also be faulted in combination with the film’s wacky pacing). These drawbacks leave the film’s greatest achievements in its concept and sequence of events.
Bad Hair is about much more than hair. Yes, a Black woman’s hair is her crown — her pride. Yet, it is also her history, so the strands that sprout from her scalp are composed of both pride and pain meaning the topic of hair isn’t singular. It’s identity. Bad Hair utilizes body horror, colorism, and patriarchal supremacy to weave in not only the topic of styles but what motivates them and the attempts to demotivate Black women in our white society. There’s no way to win for everyone, only for yourself, and Bad Hair affirms that the power is in the autonomy, not the action.