Despite being active in the entertainment industry for only a few years, young and dynamic filmmaker Justin Simien, who made his television debut with the critically acclaimed ‘Dear White People’, has a creative voice that is as loud and clear as any other. He followed his 2014 inauguration into the TV industry with a comedy-drama series of the same name, which premiered on Netflix in 2017. Three years later, he released his sophomore feature film ‘Bad Hair.’
As with Justin’s other projects, it deals with issues that are relevant to post-modern African American youths. In this case, it’s the topical natural hair versus weaves and extensions. Set in the late 1980s, when the conversations about subjects such as this were starting to form, the movie subverts its dramatic expectations by embracing supernatural and downright slasher themes. SPOILERS AHEAD!
Bad Hair Recap
‘Bad Hair’ opens with the protagonist, a preteen at the time, trying out a hair-straightening kit with the help of her older cousin. But things go wrong, and she suddenly starts bleeding from her sensitive skull. Cut to 1989 Los Angeles, the protagonist, Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), has grown up but has yet to shed some childhood timidness. She works as an assistant at Culture, a music TV station. Following the departure of their generous and braided boss Edna (Judith Scott), the station welcomes Zora (Vanessa Williams), a former supermodel.
Zora has no problem trampling down her subordinates to keep her hold on power and prominence. Anna aspires to have her own show but feels that she is stuck in limbo at work. Her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Julius (Jay Pharoah), pointedly ignores her. Her drunken landowner constantly threatens to evict her and has recently increased the rent to $500, which she can’t afford. Despite her shyness, it doesn’t take long for Zora to see that the younger woman possesses almost an intuitive understanding of the business.
Zora takes Anna under her wing, or rather, pretends to do so, and advises her to get rid of her natural curls. Anna has noticed the looks she gets from other employees (especially from her white colleagues) and reluctantly goes to a beauty salon. In a scene that perfectly melds the film’s two main themes, socio-political commentary and macabre, the hairstylist (Laverne Cox) integrates the weave Anna picked earlier into her natural hair and skull. From the sheer pain of the procedure, she passes out.
Bad Hair Ending
When Anna regains consciousness, the woman staring back at her from the mirror seems like a completely different person. Her life drastically changes after that. Julius seems to have regained an interest in her. The stares that she used to receive while making her way to the office have all turned into pleasant greetings. She discovers that Zora is using a similar weave as well. Emboldened by her own success, she aggressively suggests to her friends that they should get the weave as well.
At one point, she realizes that she is undergoing certain internal transformations. The first time her hair turns murderous is when her landowner tries to rape her. Her next victim is Julius, killed while they were having sex after the hair took possession of her body. When a terrified Anna goes to a local salon to take it off, the hair kills the stylist, a young bystander, and Edna, who was there for her own appointment.
Simien has made the third and final part of the film an out and out slasher. The weaves kill Zora and all the other women who wore them, save for Anna. After getting cornered by Zora and her possessed friends, Anna remembers that she was explicitly told not to use water on the hair. With a lighter, she turns on the fire sprinkler and cuts the weave off amid its demonic screams.
The Weaves Represent Subjugation
Despite being employed at an almost exclusively black workplace, which is supposed to celebrate various facets of black culture, Anna faces derision for her Afro-textured hair, especially after Edna leaves, and the executives bring in the sleek and stylish Zora. As a concept, fashion revolves around what the majority believes to be true beauty and the subsequent pursuit of it.
For the most part in human history, which has been written by conquerors, as Anna’s uncle Amos Bludso (Blair Underwood) notes, the standards of beauty have tilted toward paler skin, lighter eyes, and straight or wavy hair. The discrimination that Anna endures for her hair is the result of the inherent prejudice stemming from that narrow definition of beauty. Simien cleverly sets his story in the late 1980s, a period in American history that is roughly equidistant from the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Lives Matter Movement.
If we overlook the notorious war on drugs, America was largely at peace with itself at the time. The black community didn’t feel that they had to go out and assert their identity once again. It was then that the standards of white beauty started getting more prominently adapted into the black culture. Soon after, weaves and extensions, products that imply that the natural hair of black women is undesirable, became thriving components of fashion. In the film, the weaves were once used to be the hair of powerful witches.
The moment a woman starts wearing one of them, she begins to lose a part of herself. Ultimately, she loses any trace of her former self, and her body is fully taken over by the witches. This is a powerful metaphor for what happens when people put aside their own identities to assimilate into a majoritarian society. As Anna discovers, there is no other way to save oneself from such a situation except for completely eliminating the source of evil and embracing one’s original self.
The film has its share of jump scares as well as other tropes that are generally associated with the horror genre. But what is smart about this film is how it implements them to enhance its internal mythology. While visiting her uncle and aunt, Anna becomes dismissive when her uncle and her cousin’s boyfriend excitedly discuss a book containing folktales from the days of slavery, dubbing them as superstitious. Amos vehemently refutes this, stating that one of the easiest ways to subjugate a group of people is by designating their science as superstition and them as savages.
“One of the ways they make you an accomplice to your own murder,” he warns. It is with the help of that story that Anna learns that she is being haunted by a group of witches. This knowledge ultimately keeps her alive. But the true evil in this film is not really the witches. Neither it is Zora nor even the tree that produces the black moss or witch hair. It is Grant Madison (James Van Der Beek), the kindly executive in charge of Culture. In the closing scenes, it is revealed that the tree with black moss is still there on his property.
He arranges the bodies of the people killed during the ordeal to be delivered there, and then they are used to sustain the tree. If the folktale were to be believed, this implies that Grant’s ancestors were slave owners. And despite wearing the veneer of an ally, his real objectives are likely quite sinister. After all, as the top executive of a music TV station that caters predominantly to the black audience, he is in a position of power and has established his influence, albeit through indirect means, over a large group of people.
Read More: Where Was Bad Hair Filmed?