New from A Reel of One’s Own by Andrea Thompson: Sundance 2020: Bad Hair

By Andrea Thompson

Justin Simien sure as hell not only lived the time period “Bad Hair” is set in, he’s still bitter about it. It’s hard to blame him, as 1989 was apparently the year the weave really took off, a hairstyle which in itself embodies many of the expectations whiteness imposes on blackness, especially women. What makes “Bad Hair” truly despicable is that it’s mostly black women who suffer for them.

Anna (Elle Lorraine) was literally scarred from these expectations as a child after she used a relaxer on her hair in an attempt to straighten it, and she’s no less conscious of how the world views her as an adult in 1989 Los Angeles. How could she be, when she’s constantly reminded of how unimportant she is, from the depressing apartment she can’t even pay the rent on, the sort-of boyfriend (Jay Pharoah) who’s treated her like crap for years, and especially, her inability to be recognized for her talents and ideas at the music video show where she works. There seems to be potential for change after show gets some new management, but she is informed that success will come at a price, specifically a weave, which she reluctantly agrees to. For a short time, it seems worth it to Anna, since her new, painfully acquired hairstyle instantly changes how she’s perceived, and her career flourishes. Alas, new obstacles replace the old, like her hair having a mind of its own. And a thirst for blood.

Simien was obviously trying to make a thriller equally inspired by Hitchcock as Asian cinema, but it’s difficult to bring on the scares when the horror flourishes feel like style for the sake of style. Anna herself mostly exists to serve two functions – to embody whatever idea Simien has at the moment, or as the sum total of the very real oppression she faces. When she and the other women at the station get weaves, they become monsters, and their bodies are used and torn apart in various ways. The point Simien is trying to make is clear; subtlety is not a virtue “Bad Hair” embraces. Nor could it be denied that Anna and her co-workers are complicit simply by virtue of their position. But they also didn’t create these standards, and no white person is ever held accountable for their actions or privilege. The truly ironic twist is this puts black women in the same kind of sexist situation white women typically occupy in cinema, one which punishes them for deviating from acceptable standards of femininity. That could be a twisted kind of progress I suppose, but nothing resembling a real solution.

Grade: D

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