BAD HAIR isn’t fooling around. Despite the fact that it is quite funny, it takes its scares and its deeper sociological meaning seriously. BAD HAIR is Justin Simien’s second feature and he has gone in a different direction. The film is inspired by Asian horror films like The Wig and I think it’s a big swing and not a miss. I am always in favor of a filmmaker taking that risk because even wild failure can be better than placid perfection.
The film is written, directed, and produced by Simien, so it is his vision. His first feature was trenchant and unsparing of society and its foibles and BAD HAIR is not really that different. BAD HAIR seems perhaps a little less lived in as a concept, but still has very pointed and timely commentary on the pain that black women are forced to undergo to be accepted and fit into the beauty standard of American society, which is essentially that of a white Euro-centric outlook. Your natural hair is considered to be unruly and unattractive and you must conform or be considered unworthy of success or love. The stakes are very high and it fits well in the world-building of a horror film nicely.
Elle Lorraine, Insecure, is the constantly betrayed and put upon lead character Anna in 1980’s Los Angeles. She’s beautiful and smart with great ideas, but can’t be taken seriously by the shallow people of the music television channel, Culture, that she works for. Lorraine does a tremendous job as Anna. You can see the pain and disappointment in her face as she is rejected and mocked again and again, but you can also see the passion and hope that still lives in her soul. She’s fought compliance for a long time and she’s no coward, but she realizes that to succeed, she’s going to have to bend on the hair issue even though she previously suffered a traumatic hair related incident. After her boss is pushed out, Vanessa Williams – as Zora, is installed as a new leader of a revamped channel called Cult by the white owner, James Van Der Beek (!!) as Grant, who seems slightly sinister even while grinning benignly. Zora is a former model who rules with arrogance and an iron will. Zora implies that Anna won’t last long and certainly won’t reach her goal of being an on-air host with her current natural hairstyle. Anna sees the unfair success of her down low boyfriend Julius and the video star Sandra, who has a full head of long straight hair that she whips around to great effect and chart-topping triumph. She is given the number of a weave specialist, Virgie – the otherworldly Laverne Cox in a slyly menacing performance, and submits to the painful process needed to ensure her success. Things change overnight, even though Zora is stealing her ideas without credit, but strange and frightening things start happening when she gets her hair wet.
BAD HAIR is influenced by Asian horror films like The Wig and I felt that there was a quotient of magical realism within it as well. It has a fairy tale aspect to it and not just the tale of the Moss Haired Woman which is central to the plot. The history of black people in the United States and slavery are referenced too especially since The Moss Haired Woman is a tale from her father’s book on the old bad times. I have no idea if the story is real, but it succinctly mirrors the plot. The film has practical effects and puppetry to achieve the effect of the killer hair and its thirst for blood and human lives. While watching it, I found myself hearkening back to the classic Blacula as well. Blacula is a very much underrated and underappreciated gem of horror cinema. There is a magical quality and pride in both films that was wonderful to see. The strong element of humor to counterbalance and enhance the horror and the scares are used well. The cinematography of Topher Osborn is a very realistic view of the city of Los Angeles and helps to ground the increasingly bizarre frights of the film. Yes, they got me. Both with the realistic body horror, yes, it is indeed body horror, of the brutality of hair treatments for black women and the flowing creepiness of the killer hair.
The movie really has moments and really works for me as a polemical whole. It’s not there to make anyone feel good about themselves. No one is really safe from being indicted as co-conspirators. It is horror and humor to advance the discussion of the open secrets of society. There were times where I gasped and thought, OH MY GOD, you did that! It’s got a lot of clever resonances and plot twists. The main thematic element is very powerful. It resonates with women in general, but particularly for women who are completely excluded from societal acceptance for being who they are, namely black women. It is body horror with two prongs, one that your body is unfairly considered unacceptable from birth and then in making the attempt to conform there springs a monster from your own self. There’s no real way to win and the game is fixed. Even your own family and friends, your own people, pour that pressure on you. And with the ending, you see that conforming to the system merely continues a form of slavery and the patriarchal rule of white European men. There is a coda to the film that, after some thought, brought this conclusion to me. If you look closely, there are shots of a serene truck with a somewhat familiar logo cruising past in several scenes. It put into my mind the film Le Camion by Marguerite Duras, where the implacable blue truck is the main image. With that, it’s got a punch after the fact that is in line with the classic nihilistic films of horror history. To write this review, I really had to sit down with my thoughts and think about how to express what I felt about it. There’s a lot to unpack. It’s not an easy dose of medicine, but it is very entertaining.
In BAD HAIR, despite all your best efforts, the truck never stops driving on.