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‘Bad Hair’ combines horror and satire in a new portrait of respectability politics

Justin Simien’s “Bad Hair” is the liberation story we need.

<p>The cast of Justin Simien's "Bad Hair" includes performers like Kelly Rowland, Usher and Lena Waithe.&nbsp;</p>

The cast of Justin Simien's "Bad Hair" includes performers like Kelly Rowland, Usher and Lena Waithe. 

*This article contains spoilers

Just in time for Halloween, “Bad Hair” makes its first appearance on streaming platform Hulu. Previously known for “Dear White People,” writer, producer and director Justin Simien sticks to his roots and creates another film about the Black experience. Jam-packed with an all-star cast including entertainers Kelly Rowland, Usher and Lena Waithe, “Bad Hair” gives the world a new style of Black horror that is sewn up with satire. The film follows aspiring, but down-on-her-luck TV production assistant Anna (Elle Lorraine) as she seeks to change her hairstyle to conform with her studio’s status quo in 1989. She is in for a shock when her newly done sew-in weave becomes sentient and starts to crave human blood. Intermingled with slave lore and 1980s Black culture, “Bad Hair” is a wild ride into the world of Black hair politics and the American dream. 

The film opens with a young Anna getting chemically burned by a relaxer meant to give her hair a straighter texture. This scene sets the stage for the rest of the hair-related pain she experiences throughout the film. In the Black community, “bad hair” is a pejorative term used to describe kinkier, curlier hair types. In a not-so-surprising move, the title flips this long held idea of bad hair on its head. Despite what Anna thinks at first, the real bad hair is the new straight hair on her head. “It's just hair” is a phrase repeated by different characters throughout, but the film’s message says otherwise — it's not just hair. 

The mythology element to “Black Hair” adds to the layered message Simien tries to create. The film alludes to a fable about an enslaved girl getting taken over by her wig made of moss on a plantation. The parallels the film presents between antebellum slavery and the present day should not be ignored, especially when thinking about Black women’s freedom to do whatever they want with their hair.  

Similar to other recent entries into the Black Horror genre, like “Antebellum” or “Get Out,” “Bad Hair” seeks to connect to an almost universal Black experience with elements of horror. Black Horror is an emerging subset of the horror genre that centers around Black characters and their experiences. “Bad Hair” is at its roots a Black story, and its topic displays this. Oftentimes, Black people, women in particular, have to choose between getting ahead in the workplace or having their hair in its natural state. There is often pressure from coworkers and superiors to assimilate to the normative hair culture of a workspace. Given the fact that only seven states have passed anti-discrimination legislation regarding hair, freedom to choose how one's hair should be styled is still very much under attack. 

While the message of “Bad Hair” is a great critique of contemporary culture, the film’s actual composition falls short because of shaky storytelling. The satirical nature of the film is done half-heartedly, so many of the jokes do not land as they should, leaving you to wonder — was the satire intentional? Additionally, the film runs the risk of reducing its message to a simple cautionary tale about getting a weave. In reality, the message is a broader one, targeting issues of conformity and the freedom to exist. The former suggests women’s hair should be restricted, when that is not really the point the film attempts to make. Despite these shortcomings, “Bad Hair” definitely has made a place for itself in the realm of Black Horror.