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Sundance Film Festival

At Sundance, ‘Bad Hair’ stars a truly killer weave

Justin Simien of ‘Dear White People’ takes on the politicizing of black women’s hair

PARK CITY, UTAH — In a time when black women’s hair is politicized, appropriated and nearly criminalized, Justin Simien returns to the Sundance film festival with a genre-turning take on the subject.

The writer and director of Dear White People, a film (and later a Netflix series) about being black at a predominantly white university, uses hair weave — yes, hair weave — as a killer in his latest, Bad Hair.

Good hair is a polarizing term we all grew up hearing. Perhaps we even strived to have it: It certainly seemed to be the mainstream beauty standard and women’s currency — so the world sadly tells us — is in how we present.

“Good hair” isn’t coarse or kinky, and doesn’t showcase our African ancestry. It’s sleek and far more European. The term reflects a self-hating aesthetic with its origins in one of the many horrors of slavery: the raping of black women at the hands of their white owners. The resulting multiracial children often had a different texture of hair that was more manageable than that of their black family members.

That’s a lot. But it needs to be understood before diving into Simien’s latest feature, which deals with this issue in both nuanced and in-your-face ways.

Many black women grew up waiting for the day when their mothers took them to the hair salon — usually on a Saturday, with a never-ending, day-wasting wait — to get that glorious, creamy crack slapped up on your scalp. The scalp-burning chemical treatment was the key to loosening up the roots in our hair. It was a way to make our otherness feel a bit further away, perhaps because it would keep white folks from asking to touch our hair. For six weeks (until it was time for a touch-up), our hair felt normal. And if we had some length to it, we could shake it like white girls.

This is where Simien’s story begins.

Lena Waithe (left) and director Justin Simien (right) attend the Bad Hair premiere during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival at The Ray on Jan. 23 in Park City, Utah.

Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images

It’s 1989 and Anna Bludso (played by newcomer Elle Lorraine) is forever changed by a bad at-home relaxer that her cousin (with “good hair”) gave her when they were children. She’s got the war wound to show for it: a scary-looking burn scar at the nape of her neck where the chemicals permanently damaged her scalp.

Because of that, as an adult, she doesn’t let anyone else do her hair. And her hair is, of course, kinky.

Bludso is an assistant at a fledgling black music video network who is armed with game-changing ideas and desperately wants to be on camera. But her hair — and this connection will certainly be understood by a black audience — and her dark skin are deterrents to being noticed by the corporate bigwigs.

After some network upheaval, she gets a new boss, Zora (played by fair-skinned ex-beauty queen Vanessa Williams), who sits her down and tells her that her nappy hair is what’s holding her back.

So she gets a weave. And the weave is killer.

It’s an actual killer. In 2020, we get a film where a weave is as much a robber of individuality even as it gives the freedom of a low-maintenance hairstyle. But to get both assimilation and wanting eyes from the world, some people have to die.

Think Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets Jordan Peele’s Get Out, and that’s the ambitious direction Simien aims to go. There’s a clear social commentary he wants to make, while also poking fun of how in the late ’80s, the growth of blackness on television and in pop culture and the top-down demands of what black should look like, forever changed (and some might say scarred!) us.

“I hope I can use this genre to interrogate a system that mines black women for their culture, ideas, compassion, wisdom and perseverance, but does not give them enough options to shine in this light,” Simien said after the film’s screening.

We see fine work from newcomer Lorraine, former Saturday Night Live funny guy Jay Pharoah, a comic take from Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland as a would-be Janet Jackson (who we all remember seeing jump about in the “Pleasure Principle” music video, whipping hair that wasn’t hers but somehow attached to her scalp effortlessly), an excellently evil portrayal from Laverne Cox, and a pitch-perfect Williams.

The initial reviews coming out of Sundance seem to be mixed. Some find the film disjointed, others are excited about what Simien has pulled off. Almost all of the reviews, of course, are from reviewers who aren’t black or black women, in other words, from folks who may not understand the complicated backstory of black women’s hair.

At the film’s late Thursday night premiere, Simien dedicated his sophomore work to the black women in his life, including his mother, Anna.

“The movie took on something bigger than me and I went with that,” Simien said after the screening.

Waithe, a longtime friend and collaborator of Simien’s, said she was tapped early for this project and was able to be a helpful voice.

“We were able to come in and give thoughts and ideas and the way it sort of morphed into this film is a testament to the way [Simien’s] brain works,” she said, “and how talented you are and how dedicated you are to not colonize stories of black women. … And that’s why it feels so fresh and so special.

“When we watch it, it’s for us. I don’t know a black woman who can watch this and not relate to it.”

Kelley L. Carter is a senior entertainment reporter and the host of Another Act at Andscape. She can act out every episode of the U.S. version of The Office, she can and will sing the Michigan State University fight song on command and she is very much immune to Hollywood hotness.