Justin Simien has been a writer/director on the rise since winning the Special Jury Prize at Sundance in 2014 for his social satire Dear White People. The film’s success has spawned a Netflix series of the same name and is now going into its fourth season. His sharp dialogue opened conversations about college fraternities, and black identity and educated its audience on the power of an individual voice.
With his new film Bad Hair, a horror satire set in the ’80s, Simien maintains originality in race-centric themes and may even capture a new audience. I will purposefully be vague on the details of the plot. There’s only a little that you need to know.
In Compton LA 1989, Anna Bludso (played with wide-eyed curiosity and awkwardness by newcomer Elle Lorraine) is an ambitious young music video jockey who works at the black-owned MTV-like network, Culture. Arriving at work one morning, she finds that the network is being run by a new head, Grant Madison (James Van Der Beek), and he has replaced her mentor Edna (Judith Scott), with a new programming head, Zora (a scathing Vanessa Williams), who will oversee a new, broader direction to the channel. The aim is to draw in a more white audience, taking away from the uniqueness of Culture’s ambitions within its black identity in the industry.
With luscious smooth hair and a fitting corporate outfit, Zora’s appearance is professional but diverted away from her natural hair. She is appealing to a broader demographic and tells Anna that to avoid being unemployed; she will need to fit in by fixing her image. This doesn’t just mean a new wardrobe… it also means getting a weave to make even the white workers in the lobby feel comfortable being around her.
Anna relents against the values she and her colleagues maintained within their own cultural identities. Watching her favorite pop singer Sandra (Kelly Rowland), in a short weave dance in a new music video confirms the decision, so Anna decides to visit a sinister weave specialist Virgie (Laverne Cox), in the hopes of channeling Sandra’s confidence and beauty. While choosing a style of hair, Virgie informs Anna that it doesn’t matter where the hair is from… it’s all hair. Oh boy, maybe this is why people should ask where the fish from a McDonald’s filet-o-fish comes from.
Simien weaves his way through this unique world by only giving us a few scenes between Anna and her family. Each conversation, however, is purposeful and directed at Anna’s struggle to stand by her Afrocentric roots, even if it means pushing ahead with Zora’s rules. As the network looks to broaden its audience to include white songs on its billboard charts, we see Anna and most of her colleagues relinquishing their identity, namely their hair and outfits, to adhere to the new direction of the brand.
Yes, this film is as over the top as it sounds, but it is thoroughly entertaining. Not a single scene goes to waste. There is a purpose for every moment, and Simien makes sure he doesn’t skew too absurd and lose meaning. His writing tightens toward Anna’s changing identity as she rises the ranks, finding confidence in her new hair but defiance in the mayhem that follows. It’s easy to draw comparisons to Natalie Portman in Black Swan as ambition drives Anna’s choices, forcing her state of mind to falter under the pressure of being the person she thinks she wants to be. What does it cost to find your voice when commitment and ambition play havoc with your sanity?
Cinematographer Topher Osborn does a great job framing this absurd world and Anna’s crisis through shots whirling around the meeting room, capturing changing appearances to chasing Anna’s tormented mind in a frantic, hand-held spectacle. Evoking the late 80’s, he manages to capture beautiful imagery around the city. As the gentrification escalates, production designer Scott Kuzio upgrades each nook and cranny, the changing atmosphere appearing before you even know what’s happened.
The performance of newcomer Elle Lorraine makes her one to watch. Having only appeared in a few guest roles, this role will no doubt be the beginning of an interesting career. Her meekness is transformed into defiance with each facial movement, registering a different emotion in a blink. She dominates her scenes and transforms externally when her hair takes over. Vanessa Williams lives in the powerful Zora, and she only needs to look at someone for them to squirm and scat. The supporting cast includes Lena Waithe, and watch for her hilarious encounter with some bad hair.
The most unfortunate reality for this film is that had Covid not taken away the opportunity for theatrical distribution, Bad Hair might’ve gained a strong following through word of mouth. It’s a shame that it’s been fast-tracked to Hulu, but at least it gives audiences, and perhaps those who might not have seen it in a theater, an opportunity to see it. Whether this film gains momentum on the streamer is anyone’s guess, but it takes just one person to start spreading the word, and after a while, perhaps there’ll be a crowd.