Black Visions is a series that will explore culturally significant black stories of the past and present on the big and small screen.
At a family dinner, about twenty minutes in, Justin Simien poses the thematic question of his sophomore film effort “Bad Hair.” Simien’s final girl, Anna, tells her family that she believes the slave folklore that they are discussing to be superstitious, to which her father, Amos, replies: “How does one group of people subjugate another? You subjugate a people by telling them their science is superstition, their faith is heresy, and their wisdom is make-believe. They called the American Indians savages, and us? Well, what didn’t they call us?”
Before this, our heroine Anna struggles with work pressure at her job on a black channel called “Culture” in 1989 Los Angeles. Her new boss Zora, played by Vanessa Williams, promotes her from assistant to associate producer on a new show aptly named Cult Live, while her coworkers are getting laid off. On her way out of Zora’s office, Zora asks her who does her hair to which Anna answers “no one.” “Aren’t you tired of it?” Zora asks. “ All the stares you get wandering through the RMV lobby, everyone wondering why you’re here? If you went to any other floor in this tower for a job interview, you wouldn’t get past reception. And you know that. Sistas get fired for less than that every day.”
The clever Simien makes sure that by this scene we already understand what she means. As Zora walks to her segregated office at Culture, she is the only black woman walking through swarms of white businessmen who ignore or gawk at her and she passes a white woman who carries more of their respect with a swish of her straight beach blonde hair.
The office of “Culture” is divided, and the light-skinned Zora takes leadership over the failing channel with a capitalistic interest. She fires staff and encourages those she keeps to adopt her Eurocentric beauty standards through straight sewn-in weaves. Anna’s friends Brook-Lynne (Lena Waithe) and Sista Soul (Yaani King Mondschein) admonish those in the office that purchase the outlandishly expensive and painful sounding weaves. With her mind already made-up and facing eviction due to years of being underpaid, Anna goes to Virgie’s Hair Salon, and gets her haunted weave sewn-in by an understatedly menacing Virgie (Laverne Cox).
We’re nearly thirty minutes in now, and the haunted weave teased in the film’s premise has been sewn into the distraught Anna’s head. And where do we go from here? In what feels like a thematically and expositionally loaded first act, “Bad Hair” establishes all of the thematic pieces that it hopes to address with the haunted weave serving as its metaphor. Without going much farther into the film’s narrative, the haunted weave serves as a visually creepy killing machine, motivating Anna to make questionable decisions as she tries to free herself from its allure.
Though Simien’s messaging on the impact of Western Eurocentric beauty standards on the black community is more or less crystal clear. The film is set primarily with scenes occupied by black characters, meaning that Simien poses these questions introspectively within the black community. After Anna has the weave sewn in in an excruciating sequence where Simien balances a tense anxiety with body horror, Anna returns to her office where white men smile at her as she passes by, and the beach blonde near the elevator winks a sign of approval at Anna’s new straight black hair.
Simien is concerned with the social and cultural ramifications of colonization on black people and the way we perceive ourselves. In particular, the film positions Anna at the intersections between a traditional Culture (referring with the same ironic intent to the channel where Anna works) and a new consumerist vision, where sewn-in straight hair costs $450 to “fit in”. It’s an issue that black women face in the modern workplace; natural and/or Afro-centric hairstyles are met with a particular bias and scrutiny. Simien aimed to portray the media’s role in perpetuating a Eurocentric beauty standard by setting the conflict in a TV station in 1989, where black people face bureaucratic business politics as they are granted access to the means of television production for the first time. And the wide-eyed Anna, who dreams of a chance to break through that gate and be seen on-screen is an unfortunate victim to the horrific implications of respectability politics. She begs Virgie to do her hair; “You ever had a dream?” she asks. “One you’d be willing to do anything for?… Especially when somebody says you can’t do it. You don’t deserve this, says you don’t belong where you know your destiny tells you to be.”
Perhaps Anna’s empowered for a moment, but Simien does not allow her to sit in her new glow for more than that. Her new look is undercut by the fact that her boss wants her to get her coworkers to also change their looks, her pay still hasn’t gone up, and she still isn’t guaranteed the hosting gig that she was after in the first place. Instead, we follow her on the slippery destructive path that rarely empowers here.
I think this here is the film’s main weakness. It’s commentary on the weave and how black people choose to present themselves feels too critical and sardonic. Once Anna has the weave sewn in there is no saving her from it, as it does away with the people who transgressed against her and those who reject it’s hyper-femininity. Simien makes visual use of the threat quite well, but it’s metaphorical implications read are too rigid. The weave rarely empowers Anna, as she is frequently horrified by its penchant for violence, or becomes wholly consumed by it itself. In Simien’s world, there isn’t really a place for black women that enjoy weaves or aren’t threatened by them. Simien pits natural hair against artificial hair pretty stagnantly, to the point where he essentially antagonizes all of the weaves in the film (quite literally).
Simien justifies this with the black folklore and Anna’s father Amos, who frequently argues that black tradition has been erased and that a new consumerist black culture has emerged in the wake of indoctrination to a white world. This is the consumerist culture that Anna pushes on her television show, and the same one that Zora pushes onto Anna to put onto others. “Culture” must adopt a whiter image to be legible in the white imagination while trying not to lose themselves within it. Black men in the station are not posed this problem, so Simien affixes this parable onto the black women of his film.
Though by suggesting that the weaves can control those who wear them, that peer pressure and upward economic advancement all push these women to get weaves, Simien does not create space in his film for those who feel empowered by weaves. Simien has created a black femininity that is somewhat monolithic, and one that is frequently attacked by consumerism and Eurocentric beauty standards. This lack of nuance in his critique is perhaps influenced by his positioning as a black man creating this film, and not a black woman who is much more familiar with the context of these conflicts.
Though with its campy aesthetics, cheeky sense of humor, and Simien’s distinct visual interest; Simien has created an entertaining, however somewhat thematically opaque examination of black beauty.
Mateo Flores is a fourth year Writing for Film, TV & Emerging Media Major and Ministry of Cool Co-Editor. Black Lives Matter. You can contact them at [email protected].