It’s been awhile since I settled into the seasonal treats of Halloween with the shockingly, triggering offering from director Justin Siemen, Hulu’s star-studded, Bad Hair; a delightfully satirical, horror flick about weaves versus natural hair, and the high price of submitting to the former, that goes far beyond the pain of installation and upkeep.
Siemen is best known for his sleeper hit movie, 2014’s Dear White People, and the mildly successful television series on Netflix with the same title, that made its controversial debut in 2017, with the expected push back from ignorant white subscribers, who made a lot of noise, and vowed to cancel their Netflix accounts to rebel against what they deemed to be a “racist” show.
I’m a huge fan of both the movie and the TV version, that is winding down with the fourth and final season that will bring an end to what didn’t quite translate to the immediate and endearing success, that has blessed counterparts like Insecure, Atlanta and The Chi, in the realm of ambitious projects spearheaded by Black storytellers, authentically telling Black stories.
It’s hard to figure out the complexities that come with being a Black creator, who is committed to demonstrating the privilege of the craft from the standpoint of freely reveling in the artistry, that won’t always resonate in ways that garner collective applause from the community you love and serve.
When Queen & Slim hit theaters a year ago, the polarizing reception to the David Kaluuya/Jodie Turner-Smith starrer, directed by music video vet, Melina Matsoukas, and written by Lena Waithe, overwhelmed my Twitter timeline, as Black critics and Black moviegoers, viciously attacked the film that was distantly modeled from the classic blueprint of Bonnie and Clyde.
The viral “thumbs down” assigned to Queen & Slim took on a life of its own, with callous condemnations hurtled at Lena Waithe, in the form of character assassinations, hitting way below-the-belt with defamations that carried over from past transgressions, and the mind-blowing retweets showcasing highlights of her screenplay that were cruelly shredded for threads of mockery.
As a Black writer and creative, who very much relies on the instincts of my vivid imagination, within reason, it was a nightmarish experience to witness how a movie with Black leads, and Black filmmakers that wasn’t terrible, but certainly not better than average, was being publicly massacred to the extremes.
Bad Hair wasn’t put through the ringer in quite the same way, but the early reviews strongly warned against investing the time and energy because of how Siemen’s questionable vision failed to capture the realistic struggles that plague Black women, when it comes to overcoming the demonization of our natural hair textures that sadly begins at home.
For me, nothing could possibly surpass the awfulness of Chris Rock’s hairy disaster, 2009’s Good Hair, that was basically a righteous takedown and willful shaming of Black women, and their crippling obsession with weaves, which has a habit of morphing into the unhealthy addiction to the sleek, shiny bundles that grows tentacles of maniacal dependency.
Perhaps Rock’s ill-advised partnership with fellow stand-up comedian, and Good Hair director, Jeff Stilson, who is white, inevitably played a vital role in the unfortunate direction of the documentary, that relied heavily on the stereotypical and generic attachments, when it comes to the weave versus natural hair debate, without the deep dive into the historical and societal injustices that still hover.
This is probably why I found the more aggressive and darker tones of Bad Hair somewhat refreshing and a lot more frightening than I had anticipated.
The horror flick with extensions of wicked humor is set against the backdrop of the late eighties, and centers around a young, ambitious Black woman, Anna, who works as an assistant for a music television station, Culture, (think MTV) that features up and coming Black artists.
Anna, played by the impressive Elle Lorraine, is the accurate representation of my trials and tribulation as a young Black woman, navigating the intimidating and often times cumbersome landscape of a big city, that will coerce your conformity in an effort to fit the high-stakes role, that’s more than worth the physical renovation it takes to be a viable competitor.
Not to give too much away, but the impressionable protagonist, ends up making a life-altering decision that seems nothing more than expensive installation of the preferred hair type, that promises to yield the rewards of upward mobility and the much-needed upgrade to her “unpolished” aesthetic — but very quickly escalates into a bloody battle that threatens Anna’s survival.
Back in 1989, I was one birthday away from entering my late teens, and once that happened, my long-awaited dreams for my first ever relaxer treatment finally came true, thanks to the generous slathering of Ultra Sheen with lye, and the rude awakening of how the burning scalp is a positive sign that your wiry strands are being fried to a crisp.
Growing up in Nigeria, a former British colony, during the gangster era of back-to-back military coups and civil unrest, the routine was to follow the lifestyle of our colonizers, which meant sending children to boarding schools at the tender age of eleven, where they would be held until graduation at 17.
At Queen’s College, the grooming practices of the girls were policed to the point of physical assault, which would transpire after morning assembly with the ambush of women teachers, each armed with a pair of scissors, that was used to massacre the plaits of students who broke the no relaxer rule.
When I thankfully relocated to my birth country to attend college, and re-assimilated into the culture I was uprooted from a decade earlier, there were challenges of managing my tresses in its natural state, that made me miss the regimen of boarding school, which forcefully taught students how to plait each other’s hair to escape punishment.
Once I moved to New York City after college graduation, and began to earn a modest living through short-term telemarketing gigs and the trusted world of retail, I was able to find ways to finance the monthly touch-ups that couldn’t wait for the six weeks mandate, because of the damage prickly new growth does to vulnerable strands.
But in between jobs, and the threatening security that made having a roof over my head top priority in the concrete jungle, it was impossible to fund the indulgence of salon visits that transformed my hair into the respectable image of a working girl with enviable prospects.
There was no other choice but to forgo the hair straighteners and embrace the much cheaper alternative of working with what I had. This was back in the late nineties to the early aughts, way before the natural hair movement was ceremoniously ushered in, along with the saturation of the marketplace with countless, over-priced potions, that don’t target the real beneficiaries of the initiative.
My one and only weave was courtesy of an upscale hair studio, that catered exclusively to customers who wanted to maintain the beauty and versatility of their unprocessed coils. My initial consulting with a stylist turned out to be a recruitment to be one of the models photographed for the popular Black hair magazine at that time — sporting a stylish and edgy, braids and weave combo.
The day after the shoot, I couldn’t wait to unthread the headache-inducing monster, draining my senses and eating my brain alive.
In those days, there were only a handful of options for those who dared to rebelliously prance around in broad daylight, without the glamorous armor that protectively hides the shameful secret of “bad hair.”
The outright rudeness of disapprovers, including family members and circle of friends, who were also young Black women, failed to deter the journey of rediscovering my hair texture. My critics swore that my natural hair drastically reduced my attractiveness, but the low maintenance that was doable because of sporadic salon visits, encouraged the determination to unapologetically rock my Afro and braids with prideful awareness.
And this is where my horror story began, with the distinction from Anna’s plight as the Black woman who felt pressured to endure the physical and mental inconvenience of wearing something that deviated from her principles and personality.
In my case, I was willing and able to be the “brave” Black woman, who refused to wait until a little over decade later, for the activation of a hashtag and the social media platforms that will host evidential collages, as the testament of why I was on the right track, back when my actions were considered problematic.
Fast forward to the present, and it’s both empowering and reassuring to witness the progressiveness, not just in the educative dialogue and debates surrounding Black women and the uniqueness of our hair type, but also the advancements being made legislatively to curtail the abusive and unlawful reception to our ethnic hairstyles, that tragically also afflict Black children.
There’s more to discuss when it comes to the hijacking of the narrative by certain influencers and A-listers, who are profiting from branding alliances, that elect them as spokespersons, which makes some of us wonder about the mission statement of a movement, that was meant to celebrate and beautify the less desirable, tight coils that don’t produce defined curls after getting wet and gelled.
It was disconcerting to accommodate an era that wasn’t fully prepared for the earned privileges that are intensely documented on Instagram, with countless lookbooks, paying homage to the intricately, diverse and stunning variations of finessing our hair type, in ways that gorgeously separates our aesthetic from standard fare.
But coming full circle definitely helps to rebrand a horror story from a grim ending to a hopeful one.
Siemen’s Bad Hair is far from a masterpiece, but I appreciate how it’s deeply rooted in vilifying the obvious culprit in the ongoing tale about the complex and traumatic relationship Black women have with their hair, alighted by the human obstacles constantly terrorizing us into submission, with access to the “problem-solver” — weaves.
It’s not the best dramatization of the personal issue that hits too close for comfort, but it absolutely does uncover our own version of horror, that triggers our need to redefine the happy ending.