BAD HAIR is a film that I saw at Sundance in January and this is my second review. The version that you will be able to watch on Hulu starting on October 23 is different. I was asked to watch the new version and write a second review. Since I liked the first version, I thought it would be a good idea to review the new version. I actually liked the Sundance cut, but there were some things in it that I thought were not as clear as they could have been. I am not a critic, as you can read in previous reviews, that thinks everything has to be explained to the audience, but this cut has smoothed out the story and made the target of the satire more clear. While some types of films can be more open-ended and much more can be purposefully left up for interpretation, generally, satires need to be more to the point about what they are actually satirizing. I think that this cut has done that and necessarily cut a fun, but ultimately too long second confrontation that diffused the satire of the movie in a way that didn’t work as well as this second cut does.
Anna (Elle Lorraine), a young ambitious executive assistant at a music video channel Culture, seems relegated to failure and not being taken seriously at her job for one very racist reason. She is a black woman with dark skin and natural hair. She is intelligent with great ideas but has refused to conform to white society’s insistence that she adopt a hairstyle that makes them feel less threatened. Her mentor Edna (Judith Scott) is pushed out of Culture by their white boss Grant Madison (James Van Der Beek) and replaced by Zora (Vanessa Williams), an ex-supermodel. The fact that the channel’s new name is Cult is not a coincidence. During her meeting with Zora, she is told that if she wants to succeed and become one of Zora’s “girls”, she needs to get a weave from the hairstylist of the moment, Virgie (Laverne Cox). The message is clear, if she wants a future with the channel, she must conform. Anna is in a desperate position. With an unscrupulous landlord, a man in her life who won’t acknowledge that they are romantically involved, and co-workers who treat her callously and her family’s expectations of success, she gives in to the pressure and moves heaven and earth to get the new hairstyle. For the first time, she feels power and society’s acceptance of her sacrifice. But slowly, it dawns on Anna that the hair has a life and a will of its own.
BAD HAIR is an ironic pun with a dual meaning and possibly the best title this movie could have. It captures our society’s disgusting idea that black hair in its natural state is bad and serves up the irony that the weave that is supposedly these women’s salvation is really evil that will take their bodies over after it destroys what makes them who they are.
As a satire, BAD HAIR is successful at showing all the steps along the way to giving up what makes you special as a person to obey society’s demands that you become one of the many. It also is a success at showing how insidious racism and classism are in the United States by focusing on how important it is to employers that people of color, especially Black people, tone down or change the things about their body and self that are different from white people. They aren’t just requiring that you wear business clothing to the office, they are demanding that you wound yourself to meet their standards of employability and success. It’s so deeply ingrained that even Anna’s family and friends display some of those same classist attitudes and support the structure of the white patriarchy, probably without even realizing it. Why do I say it wounds the women? Because the film illustrates quite clearly how painful the process of relaxers and sewing in weaves actually is.
Anna as a young girl and Anna as an adult are both shown crying and screaming in terror and pain during both processes. Anna actually faints during the weave sequence and it is horrifying. However, Virgie notes that people faint regularly and that’s somehow worse. These sequences made me think about how acceptable it is to require this kind of pain from Black women and it’s really disturbing. No one should have to suffer this kind of pain to be accepted. No one should be made to feel that they are ugly or useless because of the state of the curl in their hair. There is an unfair and disgusting beauty standard that all women are held to, but this subset that Black women are subjected to is diabolical. It’s absolutely unacceptable, but it happens every day. That’s what’s great about satire and the horror genre, you can use them to illustrate these points in a way that gets through the commonplace acceptance of real-life horror and abuse. Black women are being required to sacrifice who they are, their own natural beauty and sense of self, in a sadistic way. It’s not just a requirement, it is also punishment.
The film guides you through the maze of those punishments, there are more than one, by showing the daily humiliations that Anna is subjected to. There really is no place that is safe, except her family home, but even there Anna is judged. A marker for a great horror film is showing how real horror can be. Some of the most effective horror films aren’t about mythical creatures, they are about the real-life horrors that human beings visit upon each other and upon themselves. There’s the zombie apocalypse proverb that states that human beings are much more dangerous than zombies could ever be and it has turned out to be true once again.
In BAD HAIR, there are strong elements of the vampire and zombie mythos. In fact, one character refers to women who have succumbed completely to the weaves as “zombie bitches” and the hair itself has a vampiric nature. I believe, as does no less of an expert than Stephen King does, that zombies and vampires are two sides of the same horror archetype. That archetype is put to good use in BAD HAIR, because like all good zombie and vampire stories, the hair itself takes you over and the body you used to occupy is no longer you. It is specifically well done in BAD HAIR because the core issue of the satire is giving up what makes yourself special to be allowed into the club. One of the plot threads that ties into this is the source of the hair and who’s responsible for the weaves that keep exponentially spreading, like a zombie virus outbreak or the vampire’s army of turned victims, Every day it spreads, and more and more Black women are drawn into that crowd. Every day, more Black women are co-opted and made into tools of society’s oppression. Just like how Black culture is absorbed and co-opted by white people: musicians, celebrities, everyone. That is how society takes control of Black culture. Absorption. Then they spit it back out as if they had invented it and make the real money and get the accolades for it. We’ve all seen it so many times before.
Now obviously, I am not Black. But even within Latino and Chicano culture, there is colorism and classism as well. There is very real prejudice against Afro-Latinos and dark-skinned Latinos, especially those of Indigenous ancestry, and society goes easier on those of us who are light-skinned, no question.
BAD HAIR carries a heavyweight of ideas and does so very well. The ensemble of actors is well cast and directed, in particular, Laverne Cox and Elle Lorraine stand out. Laverne Cox nearly steals the show as Virgie. I’m sad to say that the cutting of the second confrontation does cut Cox’s screen time, but even with her brief appearance, her work is memorable. Would someone please give Cox a role as a lead villain? Soon! I also enjoyed Lena Waithe’s slightly meta turn as Brooke-Lynn as well. Justin Simien is a horror fan and in BAD HAIR has managed to give us at least one great horror movie reference for us to enjoy. It’s a satire that is really funny. That same sense of satirical and cutting truth that Simen brought to Dear White People is still here in BAD HAIR. In BAD HAIR, he actually gets to kill some of the bad guys.
Overall, this new cut is more to the point and that is more successful for me. While no one wants to see a film maker’s vision compromised, you do have to make sure that the message gets through and being misunderstood while making satire is a real issue. Even one of film’s greatest satires which is also arguably a horror film, Dr. Strangelove, is still being misinterpreted to this day. There’s actually a fascist group that insists that its members not masturbate more than once a month and it honestly seems like the person who founded the group took General Jack D. Ripper’s “I deny women my essence” speech a little too seriously. If you have seen BAD HAIR before, I would recommend that you give it another shot. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend that you watch it because it will expose some truths to you while keeping you entertained.
BAD HAIR will be released on Hulu on October 23, 2020.