Sometimes, a terrible movie reminds me to cherish the films that have accomplished what they set out to do — or, at least, the ones that seemed to be having fun in the process of attempting to. But Bad Hair was such an excruciating cinematic experience I started to wonder if this whole motion-picture business wasn’t a good idea from the jump. I have reviewed my share of cinematic failures this year, including Ben Wheatley’s misguided Rebecca adaptation and the repugnant Antebellum. But Bad Hair surprised me, ranking as the most stunning floundering of filmmaking in 2020 — a failure of empathy, intellect, and morality that I haven’t been able to shake.
Writer, director, and producer Justin Simien made a bold proclamation in a pretaped segment that aired before Hulu’s drive-in Bad Hair premiere earlier this month. “Bad Hair is a very weird love letter to Black women and the unparalleled power they possess to endure and persevere. It’s my satirical horror love letter. Is that a thing? I guess we’re making it a thing.” After seeing the film, I’d say no. Regardless, the statement is instructive, foreshadowing the film’s intent: Can a campy horror film about Black women’s relationship to their hair translate onto the screen? Perhaps, but it would require a nimble filmmaker with a strong vision to pull it off.
The film follows Anna (Elle Lorraine), a desperate and anxious assistant in 1989 who clumsily tries to climb the ranks at her television-channel job by getting a weave that turns out to be a bloodthirsty killer, hell-bent on wrecking her life and leading her to turn to the folktales of the enslaved for guidance. (I’m already tired recounting that.) The television station is in a moment of upheaval, what with Anna’s direct boss, Edna (Judith Scott), being replaced by former supermodel Zora (Vanessa Williams) as the white higher-ups — primarily represented in the form of James Van Der Beek’s Grant Madison — aim to rework things from the top down. After getting her weave done at Virgie’s (Laverne Cox) salon, life seems to be changing for Anna as her former paramour, on-air personality Julius (Jay Pharoah), looks her way again and she finds herself up for the associate producer and on-air talent position she’s long dreamed of. Things go sideways, though, resulting in multiple murders preceded by little tension or suspense — including an attempted rape scene that I’d describe, generously, as mishandled and unnecessary.
Maybe, in another era, I could have handled the missteps of Bad Hair with less anger. Unfortunately, I’m tired of the frankly terrible Black horror films and shows of late, from Antebellum to Lovecraft Country. And I’m tired of the ways Black women are invoked in real life, including Black women like Breonna Taylor, killed at the hands of police only to be used as a cudgel to influence people to vote in a system that refuses to recognize their humanity. Bad Hair isn’t the source of my exhaustion, but it perpetuates it. Simien, from my vantage point, reflects Black men’s own strange, thorny relationship to the beauty rituals of Black women and the intimate spaces in which they take place. Both the script and direction pathologize Black women’s relationship with their hair, falling on tired tropes that frame wanting to get a relaxer or weave as a reflection of Black women striving for white acceptance and power (although the villains shown throughout the film are primarily Black women, which in itself is telling).
If Bad Hair is a love letter as Simien says, it’s written with a poison pen. The script seems more keen to produce a string of breakout moments for a Twitter-savvy audience than a cohesive narrative with engaging style. Unfortunately, the story is made worse through the costume and set design that bring it to the screen, a bland, surface-level rendition of 1989. Simien’s direction feels deadened, as if it’s fueled by an algorithm purporting to serve a youngish Black audience but, in reality, is geared toward the understanding of white folks. (Just consider his previous film and Netflix series Dear White People.) Early in the film, when Anna is being interviewed by her new boss, comes one of the most baffling cinematic choices I’ve witnessed this year. As the women speak, the camera slowly turns on its axis a full 360 degrees, ignoring the characters to take in … well, nothing: people passing by the frosted glass, the disorganization of the office. This shot is just one in a series of bewildering visual decisions (by Simien and cinematographer Topher Osborn) — from the eyesore of CGI hair to the gutless kills — that create distance between audience and character. In this way, Bad Hair becomes more of a curiosity than a reflection of the Black people onscreen or off.
It isn’t surprising, then, that the characters in Bad Hair are brought to life so poorly. Somehow, Vanessa Williams, who proved she can play a bitchy, dynamic character on the show Ugly Betty, comes across as stiff. Lena Waithe grates. Elle Lorraine lends Anna an anxious, flighty quality she can’t shake once the character becomes more vengeful, turning into a black hole where charisma goes to die.
The term campy is often thrown around far too often to describe works that don’t wholly meet their aims. But Bad Hair lacks a sense of play or archness necessary to operate with the wondrous possibility of camp. It is achingly sincere, and there’s something inherently troubling about tying Black women’s experiences with hair — whether their hair is natural, they wear a weave, or they get relaxers — to violence, as the film’s opening scene concerning a poorly applied relaxer suggests. It all comes off like an opportunity for white folks to gawk at Black women under the veneer of learning and entertainment. So who is this film really for? It may posture as if it’s for Black women and Black audiences, but it’s too patronizing for that. Every time a character — especially Waithe as on-air personality Brook — says the word sista it made my skin crawl. It was as if they had never said it before.
You can find misogynoir everywhere from the boardroom to the bedroom; it powers more of this country than many would like to believe, so it’s a worthwhile subject to explore. But I question narrative Hollywood filmmaking’s ability to reflect and interrogate the Black lifeworld. In many unfortunate ways, Simien’s latest work reminds me of the 2009 Chris Rock documentary Good Hair, which claimed to investigate Black women’s relationship to their hair after the comedian’s daughters came home wondering why they didn’t have “good hair” themselves. But the doc came off like an insult — a narrow-minded exploration poised to have Black women ridiculed and questioned rather than understood. In a similar manner, Simien’s Bad Hair is a banal, sepulchral tour through the failures of the Black male imagination supported by an industry that bleeds Black folks for inspiration but doesn’t care for their humanity.
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