In Justin Simien’s Bad Hair, his second film since his breakout debut Dear White People, the director gets hung up on re-imagining his favorite horror films and misses an opportunity for a transformative conversation about Black women’s inner lives.
The film centers on Anna (Elle Loraine) a young black woman whose dream is to be a VJ at Culture, a black TV network, but becomes jeopardized when a new executive of programming is brought in and wants to make the station more appealing to a wider audience. The story takes place in 1989 in Los Angeles during a time when appearance was one of the main ways to move up economically and socially. Because of an incident in Anna’s childhood we see at the beginning of the film, Anna wears her hair natural. When, after some time, Anna’s new boss, Zora (Vanessa Williams) calls her in for a meeting and proposes the chance for Anna to achieve her dream on a new show. Bothered by Anna’s appearance, mainly Anna’s hair, Zora tells her, “my girls need to flow freely”, and Anna considers getting a weave. But after Anna gets the new hair due, she discovers that it’s alive, kills people, and uses the blood of the victims to grow stronger, and attempts to take over Anna’s mind.
Simien has a talent, exemplified in the film and TV series Dear White People, to make the worlds and the characters of his mind real and memorable by depicting them in an authentic manner. In Bad Hair, this is barely the case. In the earliest parts of the movie, Simien’s ease with recreating the 1980’s look with costume, hair, and set design is noteworthy. He is able to create the feel of the era as well with close and medium shots that make interactions personal, and one on one to give a feeling of individuality, and business, which was prominent in 80’s social culture, and uses quick editing to bring you deeper into the world of these women. But when Anna has gotten her new weave and it begins to take over, the movie shifts to surviving a nightmare scenario, and the director opts for plot-driven storytelling choices that take the depth out of the film.
Simien writes Anna to not want a lot, or think too much. Her life is work, her dream is to be on TV and be with her office fling, Julius (Jay Pharoah) People like Anna exist, but these people have more to them. When Anna visits a hair salon to get the weave, she falls asleep waiting to be seen. She dreams, seeing herself floating near a window, at the top of the ceiling in a futuristic house, looking down at something. The image seems to symbolize that she is detached from herself. We never see this image again. Anna has dreamt it. It’s something that she knows is real for her and wants for herself.
Later on, Anna goes to her family’s house for a weekly dinner, where her Uncle Amos (Blair Underwood) who we see she has been taken in by as a child in the beginning of the film, introduces her to a book of slave folklore. Amos and her Aunt Maxine (Michelle Hurd) and Anna’s competitive and narcissist cousin Linda, (Chante Adams) have little respect for Anna, which shows when she sits down for dinner and takes a place on the floor propped up on an ottoman with the others in chairs and she resembling a housemaid. Linda interrupts her when she shares that she may be a host, and her aunt and uncle share a judgmental look when Anna says she doesn’t know when her new show will start. When Amos reads a tale of the “Moss Haired Girl”, about a slave who takes hair from a tree that happens to be cursed by witches and drives her to kill people, Anna dismisses the book. Her uncle gets offended, gives her a lecture on the importance of knowing your history. Later he convinces her to take the book and she does.
After a month the hair begins its killing spree, by taking her landlord after he tries to assault her. Anna keeps it to herself and moves on, and starts doing well at work with Zora. She doesn’t confront the killing. Like her feeling of detachment, the memories of the violence plague her.
Anna reads the tale of the “Moss Haired Girl” once. Later, after the weave has taken more life she calls Linda and asks her to read her the tale but in the events of the story, Anna does nothing with the knowledge. She returns home to ask her Uncle for help but for some reason (its very hard to tell if it’s for fear or protectiveness of the myth) he refuses to analyze it.
As the movie progresses, whenever Anna’s hair takes a life, an erry, sinister image of her family dressed up in what looks like Kwanzaa clothing, sit at the dinner table full of food, and stare at her. Their judgment of her, her feeling like she is wrong for something, is obviously troubling, but it only shows up as an image the evil spirit tries to use to take over Anna–it only shows up as a genre device. Anna never confronts it.
There’s no reason why she doesn’t try to deal with what’s going on. What she wants deep down is to be connected to herself, and to be seen as human. Simien never allows Anna to go for what she really wants. Instead, he takes Anna and the audience for a wild, but empty ride.
Along with leaving the trauma undealt with the director leaves story threads the same way. The unconnected points make the movie feel confusing and incomplete. As the film goes into a scary tale, in every way, from the lack of character’s exploration, the lack of character depth, and that it solely becomes about Anna’s need to escape the trap of her hair, the movie becomes a scary story featuring black people, than actually allowing the characters to discover themselves and the options of who they can be.
Bad Hair only ends up existing to bring black people into the horror genre where they have been historically unrepresented. While this is important it’s not what matters the most. The movie maintains black women’s places and they are still slaves to someone else’s plans.