PARK CITY – Justin Simien is a world builder. He may not realize how impressive he is at it (or, hey, maybe he does), but when you see a Simien production it is going to have layers. It is going to have depth and it is going to make you believe that no matter what the genre, the characters that inhabit it will have – forgive me – soul. He accomplished that with his 2014 directorial debut “Dear White People” (one of Tessa Thompson’s breakout roles) and the Netflix series that followed it which featured an almost entirely different cast. In “Bad Hair,” which premiered on Day One of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Simien’s strengths come to the forefront once again and that’s what makes it so difficult to pinpoint why the final product doesn’t exactly gel together as it should.
“Bad Hair” begins with a flashback to the ‘70s where a young Anna (Zaria Kelley) endures a hair straightening treatment under the auspices of her older cousin. Something goes wrong with the relaxer, however, and Anna gets a deep and painful burn in the back of her neck. It’s a trauma that sticks with her for decades.
In 1989, a twentysomething Anna (Elle Lorraine) finds herself stuck as an executive assistant at the fictional Culture, an African American television network based in Los Angeles (think BET if it was based on the West Coast). She dreams of being an on-air host on one of Culture’s music video programs, but her somewhat shy demeanor makes her seem invisible to her more charismatic co-workers and superiors. When an executive at Culture’s parent company, Grant Madison (James Van Der Beek) announces that her boss Edna (Judith Scott) is departing in a major shakeup, she wonders what her future will be under a new boss, the intimidating Zora (Vanessa Williams).
A legendary model who is segueing into a new career, Zora and her new assistant differentiate themselves from all the other Black women working at the company in one distinctive fashion: they both have straight hair weaves. When Zora suggests she might be interested in Anna’s ideas for revamping the network it’s also insinuated that Anna might want to get that natural nappy hair taken care of. Eventually, thanks to a suspiciously wicked hairstylist, Virgie (Laverne Cox), Cora faces her childhood fears and gets some beautifully dark locks weaved into her hair (OK, she passes out during the appointment, but she did it). The result is transformational. Anna walks into her building the next day with looks from both men and women that she’s never experienced before. And at work? Zora promotes her to an Associate Producer and begins to implement her new strategy centered on a brand new countdown show. All appears to be going swimmingly until Anna realizes her hair might be…hungry.
Considering the movie is literally titled “Bad Hair,” it’s not a surprise that Anna’s new follicles might have a life of their own. What envelopes this conflict is Simien insisting that the issues women faced at that time (and, you could argue, today) in how they present themselves is systematic to a white-dominated culture. In this particular era, Black women with straight hair were jumping to the front of the line. He even uses an ingenious Janet Jackson-Jody Watley composite, Sandra (Kelly Rowland), to demonstrate the power this image had on mainstream music and television. One of Culture’s on-screen stars, Sista Soul (Yaani King Mondschein) has fought her way to “success” on her own merits and even she swallows her pride and visits Virgie’s salon for a new look.
What might have been a simple horror tale with occasional moments of humor (possibly not enough of them) gains even more context when Anna begins fixating on African-American folklore championed by her Uncle (Blair Underwood). In particular, the tale of a female slave who takes moss from a tree to lengthen her hair. There are a number of other narrative threads teased along the way and some turn out to be red herrings and some are not. Again, it’s a rich world that Simien is crafting here.
It’s not just the remarkable production design, costumes and makeup and hair from Scott Kuzio, Ceci, Kellie Robinson, and Nikki Wright, respectively, although they bring late the ‘80s to life with sparkling detail for an independently financed production. As he did with the hilarious TV spoofs on “Dear White People,” Simien takes the time to craft almost complete music videos for Sandra and other artists that are spot-on examples of the aesthetic of early hip-hop. Often these creations appear on just TV screens in a scene, but it brings a richness that some blockbuster productions would simply ignore.
“Bad Hair” also benefits from an ensemble that lifts Simien’s leisurely paced storyline when it truly needs it. This is the sort of film where Usher can appear on screen for less than three minutes and communicate more about his character than other actors can convey in a two-hour film. Jay Pharoah can shine in a mostly non-comedic role as a Culture VJ and love interest. Nichole Beyer can scene steal as one of Anna’s neighbors and MC Lyte can wonderfully play against type. Oh, and Lena Waithe can inject some welcome laughter into the movie’s long climax (well, at least the first one).
Where “Bad Hair” falters is, yes, weaving so many of these elements into a consistently compelling narrative. Simien is obviously inspired by ‘80s horror movies and is admirably attempting a very big swing. There is a lot to unfurl and it simply takes too long to do it. There is a distinct energy lacking in the first half of the film so that when things go haywire in the third act it feels a bit like a whole new movie has begun (not to mention a number of different endings). It also doesn’t help that Kris Bowers’ period-influenced score sometimes distracts more than assists the proceedings. And then there is Lorraine who has a lot on her, um, shoulders in her first leading role. She’s no doubt a talented actress but is often, to her detriment, overshadowed by her more experienced co-stars this time around.
Simien wants to rightfully elevate Black women in a genre that he clearly loves and he’s found some stellar actresses beyond Lorraine to assist him that endeavor. And, perhaps most importantly, the film lives is a cinematic universe that will stick with you. Yet, somehow, the end result still leaves you wanting. [B]