Bad Hair: O, What a Tangled Web, by David Bax
Justin Simien’s Bad Hair–which finds him continuing to grow as a filmmaker six years after his debut, Dear White People–has a grainy, slightly washed out look, ostensibly intended to situate the audience in the movie’s period setting. The fact that the trailer and promotional stills have a more expected, crisply digital, modern gloss to them suggests that this is a visual effect. Perhaps you find that to be a gimmick but, let me assure you, nothing in Bad Hair is cheap or under-considered. By the time the credits roll, it’s long been clear that the throwback look is just one aspect of Simien’s adulation for the entire history of B-horror flicks.
It’s 1989 and Anna (Elle Lorraine) is a long-suffering assistant at Culture, an “urban” subsidiary of an MTV-type music video network. When new management, headed by Vanessa Williams’ Zora, takes over, Anna sees an opportunity to finally move up the ladder. Her first move is to take Zora’s hair advice, making an appointment at the same salon her new boss uses. Her new weave does indeed help advance her career but, it turns out, the hair wants something in return.
Even before developing a mind of its own, Anna’s hair is already causing her pain. As I understand it, that’s not uncommon with a new weave but this naturalistic body horror (hair horror?) fits right alongside the rest of Simien’s literal and metaphorical depictions of the turmoil the culture (or, in this case, Culture) inflicts on black women’s minds and bodies.
Bad Hair is a horror movie chock full of such social critiques and allegories, which (despite what Joe Bob Briggs may want to believe) is a tradition as old as cinema itself. Simien most directly, and revealingly, addresses internalized racism, the way that whiteness looms over black Americans even when there aren’t any white people in the room; Zora’s boss, Grant (James Van Der Beek), only drops in occasionally to be condescendingly approving. Anna code-switches even in different rooms in the Culture offices, depending on if she’s deferring to Zora or confronting her coworker and maybe boyfriend, Julius (Jay Pharoah).
Still, socio-politics and cultural relevance are just part of Simien’s obvious admiration for horror movie heritage. Bad Hair is delightfully old school. Sure, there’s a self-awareness that allows the movie to be the rare horror/comedy that gets both funnier and scarier as it goes on (“Look, I can’t die today! I ain’t been to church in like fifteen years!”). But that’s doesn’t impede its unabashed embrace of the genre, with unironic visual nods to subcategories from zombies to witches to creature features. And, luckily for us, Simien’s love for these movies is matched by his talent.