No subject is off-limits when it comes to horror films and filmmakers are always attempting to bring us original story ideas that could be terrifying, silly, or over the top satire. Justin Simien(Dear White People) gives us a BAD HAIR a horror satire set in 1989 about image and the importance of fitting in with society’s mindset on what is considered an acceptable standard of beauty.
Bad Hair a term familiar to many African Americans to describe hair that does not fit what white America identifies as beautiful. It’s hair that is considered hard to comb, brush, and maintain. So if your hair isn’t soft and straight and easy to work with it was labeled “bad hair”. Justin takes the symbolism of that word by incorporating it into the horror genre.
The film follows Anna(Elle Lorriane) a young content creator at a music television studio attempting to work up the corporate ladder and possibly hosting her own show. She has been working hard at her job and supposedly dating Julius(Jay Pharoah) a host of one of the station’s shows. It’s a struggle for her and her teammates Sistah Soul( Yaani King Mondschein) and Brook-Lynne (Lena Waithe) to have their voices heard by management.
When her current Manager Edna(Judith Scott) is replaced by Zora(Vanessa Williams) a perfectly coiffed, elegantly dressed professional. It is clear in the transfer of power office scene that Zora’s “ethnic persona” is a crucial factor in her removal from the station. However, Zora represents the look widely accepted by society and upper management.
Zora immediately begins to make major changes that have everyone on edge especially when she reveals the station’s new direction. A direction completely moving away from the original urban vibe. But like in many corporate environments Anna finally has an opportunity to move up contingent on a new look for her image. That means eliminating her natural hairstyle which looks pretty cool but not good enough for advancing in the station.
With the stress of being behind on rent and possibly use her apartment and Julius ending their relationship after she helps him advance in his career, Anna sees no other option but to adapt to the new office culture. So with a recommendation from Zora, she schedules a visit with Virgie(Laverne Cox) the premier hairstylist in town for a hair weave.
As Virgie begins to work on her hair Anna relives the flashback memories of her childhood disastrous hair straightening trauma. Unfortunately, she endures the painful experience but doesn’t see any other option to advance in the job she loves and maybe finally excel.
On return to work, the response to Anna’s new look is magical, everyone smiles at her, men notice her and the acceptance is instant. It’s even more empowering when one of the shows musical stars Sandra (Kelly Rowland) acknowledges her new look commenting her on Virgie’s work.
But as we soon find out not all hair is good hair and this hair is very, very bad. And as Anna begins to shine and holds her own her hair has other demands. It’s not the kind of hair any woman wants on her head.
Though many Caucasians and other ethnic women wear hair weaves I think it is clear that a solid statement is being made by the filmmaker about race and identity. Racism takes many forms and African Women should be able to wear their hair however they want with confidence. But when your natural hair is the reason you lose your job or stops you from advancing in one then indeed we will continue to face identity and image crisis for generations to come.
Written and Directed by Justin Simien and stars Elle Lorraine, Vanessa Williams, Lena Waithe, Laverne Cox, Jay Pharoah, Kelly Rowland, Blair Underwood, James Van Der Beek, Usher Raymond
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Fear is a primordial emotion. It’s perhaps what drives the “survival of the fittest.” Our ancient ancestors stayed safe out of fear, long enough to pass along their fears to us. This might be why fear, when harnessed to serve a story with something to say about the human condition, can leave one breathlessly awake. Some of my favorite stories like this include Rosemary’s Baby, the original Stepford Wives, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (‘56 & ‘78), The Shining, Alien, and Get Out to name a few.
My first experience with the power of fear in film was thanks to my aunt Zora, who introduced me to A Nightmare on Elm Street at an age that might seem reckless if in fact I had had any sense of what was happening. At five I didn’t exactly have a handle on what was at stake for the characters; I was in it for the cool glove. But there was something powerful that stayed with me about that series. As I’ve matured as a storyteller and a story lover, the horror inspired films that stick with me most are psychological thrillers – like those I noted above – that have something on their minds. Not only do these films thrill us with their perhaps far-fetched central concepts wrapped in deft storytelling, they also leave us with something long after the credits roll. That gnawing feeling that we must apply the lessons unlearned by the not so lucky protagonists in these stories, lest we meet their proverbial fates.
It’s that feeling that encapsulates why psychological thriller and satire complement one another so well; the urgency to consider implications and consequences beyond the context of the film. This is why the best horror films make us laugh one minute, then shriek the next, only to wake up in a cold sweat some nights later; our subconscious, through nightmares, taunts us with their hidden meanings.
This is why I wrote Bad Hair, a satirical psychological thriller centered around a dark skinned girl from Compton named Anna, who has everything she needs to succeed in the burgeoning music television field of Los Angeles, 1989, apart from the right “look.” A look decided centuries before she was born by forces beyond her control and understanding. All of this takes place against the backdrop of the New Jack Swing era, a dramatic acceleration of the assimilation of urban black culture into pop. Like my first film, a satire called Dear White People, which I’ve since spun off into a series for Netflix, I’m making this because I have much to say about the hidden costs and quiet personal deaths one feels when trying to thrive in a world not built with them in mind.
- Justin Simien, Writer/Director