Friday, July 09, 2021

Bad Hair – review

Director: Justin Simien

Release date: 2020

Contains spoilers

So, let’s get this up front – vampiric hair weaves. There, it has been said. But this horror comedy has a serious heart and a message about the exploitation of black women and black culture, along with the social politics around black hair (poignant as I post this, given the recent and systemically discriminatory ruling of the Olympic Committee around swim caps). It looks to explore how black culture is used, flattened and broken for white consumption. It looks also to explore how black women, in particular, are forced to deny themselves to get ahead – it exposes the lie of diversity when privilege overwhelms it.

All that said it is also great fun – especially when the horror aspect takes the fore – with a fantastic central performance from Elle Lorraine.

Elle Lorraine as Anna

It starts quite a few years before, however, as Linda (played young by Corinne Massiah) is helping younger adoptee Anna (played young by Zaria Kelley) with her hair. This is a chemical treatment and something goes wrong and, though Linda insists she followed the instructions, Anna is left with a scar from a chemical burn on the back of her scalp. We cut and see hair being prepared and shipped, and then we are in 1989 LA and Anna (played older by Elle Lorraine) is in an interview for a music video station. We discover she has been an assistant at a station called Culture for 4 years, where there is no real opportunity for advancement, but she is not what the white interviewers are looking for – too 'urban' they suggest.

Culture staff

Culture is a black music video station and is, it appears, supported by the network out of sufferance. When she arrives at work there is an all staff meeting going on and a new executive has been parachuted in, in the form of Grant Madison (James Van Der Beek). There are to be big changes, the first being that Edna (Judith Scott), head of programming, was ‘stepping down’ and being replaced by former model Zora (Vanessa Williams). There was to be an overhaul of programming.

offered the card

So, Anna is not having a good day. She was Edna’s assistant and then Julius (Jay Pharoah), who she was seeing surreptitiously, breaks off with her saying he is seeing someone else. At her rundown apartment she is hiding from the landlord who has ramped up the rent, leaving her in arrears. When she is interviewed by Zora (literally a job interview hidden as a ‘get to know you’) she mentions that she actually came up with the flagship show on the channel and has a firmed-up idea for a new show. She gives Zora the proposal. Zora suggests she might consider changing her hair and offers her a card for a salon called Virgie’s.

the weave

Anna visits her family and suffers a berating from academic Uncle Amos (Blair Underwood) when she is dismissive of slave folklore. He later apologises but has her borrow the book of stories he was talking about. She also borrows $500 towards her rent but, on the way home, stops at Virgie’s. A weave there is $450 dollars and the waiting list is long but, after an impassioned plea to Virgie (Laverne Cox) herself, is fitted in that day. She chooses the hair, the weave process is painful – Anna has the scar (physical and psychological) of course, but she is tender-headed and Virgie literally does repeatedly break the skin of the scalp. She is warned not to get the weave wet.

feeding on the landlord

So, Anna’s life goes on the up. The new look is opening doors but not everyone at Culture is happy as they believe the direction the station is moving in is selling the black music and culture scene out. Of course, there is the hair. Anna’s eyes will flash into a golden colour occasionally and the hair is thirsty for blood. The first murder is her landlord. He tries to rape Anna, she stabs him and the hair (which can move and grow/shrink) flows into the wound and sucks him dry. Starved, the hair becomes dishevelled, fed it is lustrous and it is later reported that the host is filled with a hunger.

the Moss Haired Girl

Anna ties this to a slave’s tale of the Moss Haired Girl, the story of a slave who made a wig from the hair-like moss off a tree. That wig acted in much the same way but the story continues that the moss was actually the hair of witches and it needed blood to grow in strength to allow the witches to take over the body of the wearer. So, there is a bit of a body snatcher theme here (and it is not only Anna who has one of these weaves). Indeed, the weaves come from the same source as the moss from the story and this is a further example of white exploitation of black bodies – with the supply company selling this hair belonging to a white man.

sating hunger

I really enjoyed this. It had its own self-contained lore, the hair would defend itself (and the wearer, so long as the wearer wasn’t the threat) and when chopped it actually bled. I had seen some criticism that the film was overly long, but never felt that myself. The central idea is great, the underlying messaging important and the hair related body-horror great fun. Best of all were the performances, strong throughout but absolutely stellar from Elle Lorraine, as I mentioned at the head. Plus, from a TMtV point of view we welcome hair weaves into the vampire fold. 8 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.

On DVD @ Amazon US

On Blu-Ray @ Amazon UK

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