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Sundance 2020: Bad Hair Review

Bad Hair takes place in Los Angeles circa 1989, right when hip-hop is about to explode in pop culture. Our hero, Anna (Elle Lorraine), is a lowly assistant at a black music video TV show called Culture, and she aspires to bigger things, like an on-air role.

A network shake-up sends Anna’s old boss packing and replaces her with Zora (Vanessa Williams), a no-nonsense former supermodel. Zora sees associate producer potential in Anna, that is if she does something about her curly natural black hair. If Anna wants to move ahead in her career, she must get a weave.

Anna takes Zora up on her offer and goes off to get her hair did. And once Anna dons her new weave, writer/director Justin Simien’s horror-comedy, Bad Hair, goes off the rails in the best possible way.

The weave (which Simien uses as a symbol for selling out) is an insidious force of evil. Literally. The damn thing is cursed. Anna gets her wish and starts moving up in her career, and attracting attention from men, like her douchey ex who used to blow her off. As Anna sacrifices her blackness by succumbing to a white beauty standard, the weave slowly devours her soul. Making matters worse, it has a vampiric taste for blood and comes alive to murder any fool who gets in Anna’s way.

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Simien’s cast is by far the most compelling aspect of the film. While Bad Hair doesn’t feature a big-name star, it speaks to the respect Simien commands among his peers that he assembled such a deep bench of role-players. The marvellous cast includes Laverne Cox, Blair Underwood, Robin Thede, Jay Pharoah, Usher, Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, and legendary rap star MC Lyte.

With so much talent on the screen, it’s hard to look away. The actors ping pong off each other and create the joyous comedic energy of a sketch-comedy series. I do wish the film devoted more time to its excellent cast. But make no mistake, it’s the movie’s lead, Elle Lorraine, that holds this picture together.

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Bad Hair — Director Justin Simien — Credit Sundance

Lorraine’s wonderfully expressive eyes hook the audience and reel them into her character’s harrowing emotional journey. Anna begins the film as a timid pushover, and it’s impossible not to root for her. Through her longing eyes and hunched posture, you can see Anna’s insecurities physically holding her back from becoming the person she wants to be.

Once supernatural forces come into play, and cast Anna under their dark spell, Lorraine dominates every inch of the screen with hellacious fury. It’s an incredible transformation that infuses the right amount of heart, soul, and humour to keep you emotionally invested in this batshit insane genre flick.

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Simien does an exceptional job creating a sinister atmosphere and establishing a sense of place. Part of that is Kris Bowers’ malevolent score, which drills under your skin from the opening jump. The costume and production design do their best to recreate the late ‘80s in all their tacky glory. And cinematographer Topher Osborn infuses the film with a gritty throwback look by shooting all the action on 16mm film. The result feels close to, but not precisely ‘80s. But that works in the film’s favour. Bad Hair feels like it takes place in some weird alternate dimension that is close to ours, but slightly off. And this strange dissonance only adds to the movie’s creepy vibe.

Bad Hair wrestles with some troubling themes. Even though Simien focuses on the narrow perceptions of American beauty standards, the film also speaks to a much larger issue; the way we must succumb to groupthink to get ahead in life.

Anna’s choice to get a weave isn’t a real choice. It’s an obligation to a societal beauty standard contract that black women didn’t sign up for. There is no path to success unless Anna gives in to white beauty standards. She can refuse to cave and spend her life as a broke-ass nobody, or live out her dreams by giving up a piece of who she is, her beautiful black hair.

This notion of sacrificing your ideals to get ahead is pervasive in every aspect of society but heightened in the entertainment industry. It applies to actors who can’t book work unless they take on the roles of junkies, hookers, and thugs. No black actor wants to be pigeon-holed as a negative stereotype but taking these sort of roles are often the only way for them to get a foot in the door.

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What’s even more terrifying is how these oppressive ideals seep into our cultural values until people don’t think to question them. What’s scarier than the young black girl who doesn’t even realize what she’s giving up to look like some Scandinavian Instagram influencer? One character frames the situation as our people, “becoming an accomplice to their own murder.”

At times Bad Hair feels cheeky, almost to the point of irreverence, although I know that Simien has love in his heart for the pulpy genres he’s borrowing from. For better and for worse, the movie has the look, feel, and manic energy of a fever dream. It’s funny, violent, and devilishly playful but plays things a little too fast and lose. With some additional editing and more thematic cohesion, Simien could have delivered a great film. What he has on his hands now is a good movie that creates a great platform to have a necessary conversation.

Bad Hair is a delightful horror dramedy that interrogates black women’s struggle to be true to themselves in the face of a system hellbent on snuffing out their blackness.

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