Been bingeing a lot of television series and movies during the pandemic but seem to always be behind the curve on what everyone else is watching? No worry. <whispers> Most of us are that way too, so we’ll give you the scoop on what we thought to help you determine whether or not you want to go ahead and press play or keep putting off watching what everyone’s been talking about.
“Bad Hair,” the 2020 film written, produced and directed by Justin Simien, is somewhat of an anthem for Black girls and women who’ve been hidden by Europeanized standards of beauty. I recently watched the satire-horror film from my living room couch, glued to the screen. Honored by the telling of a tale too-often lived, I was reminded of my own burning memories of relaxers and hair weaves.
Simien, creator of “Dear White People,” narrates for Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), a young Black woman living in 1989s Los Angeles, seeking to climb the ladder in the entertainment industry. Anna is snuffed out from the promotion she deserves after her boss, Edna (Judith Scott), leaves the company and is replaced by an executive ready to shove a more Eurocentric-looking agenda for the network.
The new executive and ex-model Zora (Vanessa Williams) insinuates possible advancement for Anna, if she changes her look. Her hair, that is. Anna, desperate for a career move, accepts the offer to be one of Zora’s “girls” and goes to get a weave.
She struts down to the hair salon and gets a sew-in from upscale hairdresser, Virgie (Laverne Cox). Scarring memories flood her bleeding scalp as she sits in the chair. But she doesn’t stop Virgie from installing the weave. Her decision soon becomes deadly.
“Does ‘It burns!’ sound familiar”?
The opening scene shows us a moment in Anna’s childhood, where her teenage cousin gives her a relaxer and causes a severe burn on her scalp. Young Anna, played by actress Zaria Kelly, looked in the mirror and screamed, while her cousin held a clump of hair in her hand. The spot never truly healed: the pain reemerged time after time in Anna’s adult life.
I felt this scene in my soul and doubt I’m the only one.
I remember squirming in a chair at home while my mother slathered the creamy chemical mixture on my kinky hair. When the burn got too bad to bear, she’d grab a bottle of oil sheen (you know, the one in the blue can) and spray it all over my head. The mist cooled the burning sensation, so I was told.
After a while, I got good at ignoring the pain. I’d psyche myself out of it, thinking “This doesn’t really burn.” As if some rites of passage, I felt the need to tolerate the pain as long as I could.
Like Anna, I was scarred, too. My hairline bore scabs days after we washed the chemical mixture out. It was horrible. My hair was brittle. My skin burned, and my heart dreadful and confused. The burns eventually healed. Though, I never felt compelled to get a relaxer again.
We’ve been living this.
The film briefly mentions our hair experience during enslavement through the reference of a folktale called “the Moss-Haired Girl.” If you’re anything like me, you may have heard this story before about willow trees.
As it’s told in the movie, an enslaved Black woman was mesmerized with the long moss hanging from the trees where she was held captive. She made a wig from the moss and showed it to the plantation owner, who then warned her the moss was deadly. The hair was said to be possessed by witches and eventually killed the woman.
Anna reads about the tale in a book given to her by her uncle, Amos Bludso (Blair Underwood). She initially rejected the story, believing it was less truth than fiction, but later appreciated its wisdom when it nearly saved her life.
While the film doesn’t go in-depth on our hair experiences during that time, it shows disturbing so-called beauty standards aren’t new.
It was a stark reminder of how complicated our lives were made by European captors, from our very livelihood down to the stands of hair on our heads.
On some accounts, our ancestors’ heads were shaved completely during the process of enslavement. In other instances, their hair was forcibly covered by kerchiefs and headwraps. This hair—our hair—is the same hair we invested so much time and pride into styling before enslavement. All around the continent, our adorned braids, locs and twists held special cultural meaning.
Our hair has been on a journey with us. From elaborate indigenous styles, it became the carrier of seeds. Our ancestors braided the sacred black-eyed pea into our hair, so that it would voyage the Middle Passage with us and provide nourishment for us wherever we go. Ain’t much changed.
“It’s just hair.”
But is it, though? Is it just hair?
This line was mentioned a few times throughout the film. It’s also one I’ve heard in my own life growing up and throughout adulthood. And while I believe the line is best understood within context; in general, it’s absent of truth.
Our hair is not just hair. It’s many things. From a styling standpoint, it offers mind-blowing aesthetic. Think traditional Ethiopian braiding or shiny, pressed and parted Brooklyn styles in the ‘90s. It speaks volume. It has enough mind of its own to tell others where we’re from. It holds memory. Not to mention the science: It defies gratify, lifts into the air like antennas.
Whether braided up or laid down, our hair is, at its best, when it is loved and well taken care of, the mind included. It’s called the “crown” for a reason.
If there was oOne thing “Bad Hair” did right was bring together a cast of all-stars to tell the story.
Sandra, Anna’s pop star-singer idol, was played by Kelly Rowland. She gave us all the old-school Janet Jackson vibes, singing and dancing in a button-up, vest, hat and, well, a killer weave. Usher Raymond lV appeared as Sandra’s co-star, Germane D.
Another revered artist-musician, MC Lyte, made a special appearance as Coral, the hairdresser Anna sees at The Crown salon to remove her weave. A number of stars from Simien’s “Dear White People” appeared in the film, including previously-mentioned Blair Underwood, DeRon Horton as Kieren Johnson, Courtney Sauls as Aisha and Dahéli Hall as Sheryl. Simien made a brief cameo as a morning show radio DJ.
Viewers Deserve a Trigger Warning
Since the filmmaker and producers didn’t give it to me, let me give it to you: Trigger warning. This film includes an attempted-rape scene, that in my opinion, was wholly unnecessary.
Every person deserves to feel safe consuming entertainment. We at least deserve warning for potentially triggering content beyond an age rating, especially when the film is written for an audience it may potentially harm.
Like some other reviewers, I question Simien’s choice for including this scene in the narrative. Anna’s drunken landlord attempted to violate her after several attempts to retrieve rent money (which he raised by $500 last-minute). The landlord ends up dead.
I’m not sure if his death was supposed to offer some level of justice, but there should’ve been more to this. The experience needed to be fleshed out and it wasn’t. It offered no reconciliation for Anna (or viewer). It happened. It was over. And that was it. It left no room for Anna to realistically process or recover from her experience.
Regardless of the purpose of including this scene, it deserved more time. There should have been space for Anna to feel through her experience, rather than rushing her to remain silent. The audience, many of whom are Black women, should know there is more than one way to respond to assault, like finding mental and emotional healing.
Film or not, victims of sexual assault deserve to be honored in their full humanity. Not exploited. This, Simien, was not it.
To watch or not to watch?: Go ahead. Give it a watch.