When it was announced that actress Sanaa Lathan was going to star in Netflix’s Nappily Ever After, there was a sliver of skepticism that overtook me as I contemplated what to expect from an offering, that was supposed to tackle the complex relationship that Black women have with their hair.
Weeks later, Lathan posted the first image of her shaved head, as proof that production was underway, and then weeks after that, the next post showed a burst of curls sprouting on her head, and that’s when my excitement for Nappily Ever After — faded.
The highly-anticipated trailer recently dropped, and it confirmed my earlier assumption of how the casting of a light-skinned Black woman with hair texture that women like me would probably kill for — is typically always the safer bet in narratives that require a more prolific fit.
I’m actually a huge fan of Sanaa Lathan, and my appreciation started with the The Best Man and then escalated with Love & Basketball. She was part of the crop of Black actresses that dominated my generation, and while her talent was and still is indisputable, she also represented the era when actresses of color had to possess certain features and skin hues in order to be palatable for the big screen.
Nothing has changed much since the nineties, but at least there’s a level of progression spawned on by the thread of conversations on social media, that highlight the issues of diversity in Hollywood, and how despite all the chatter, dark-skinned actresses with heavy doses of ethnicity are still dismissed or even trolled by disapproving fans who aren’t down with out-of-the-box choices.
I try not to jump the gun when it comes to judging things I haven’t experienced, but there was no way to contain the mixed reaction that followed after seeing the trailer about a successful Black woman who seemingly has it all, until it she doesn’t.
And then as a form of emancipation, she decides to get rid of her crowning glory, in order to end her reign as a “control freak” while finally “letting herself grow.”
The general reception to the sneak peek was expectedly positive as praises from Black women poured in with rapid glee. Anything to do with hair is usually an easy sell, and Netflix has obviously caught on to this fact. And when your leading lady is a popular actress who has paid her dues, there’s really no way to lose.
And while there’s no doubt that Nappily Ever After, will be another win when it hits the queues of over-zealous viewers, I will remain cautiously open to the possibility of being swept off my feet, even though it’s unlikely that my instincts have led me astray.
The main reason why I find the trailer for Nappily Ever After problematic is unfortunately entangled in the leading lady, who is demonstratively not qualified when it comes to claiming the woes that accompany the texture of hair that is historically described as “nappy.”
I have written extensively about the shaming of Black women’s hair especially by Black men who seem to enjoy publicly ridiculing our grooming habits for the pleasure of exacerbating an already highly-sensitive subject. It’s no secret that when it comes to Black women and hair, there’s definitely a political and societal element that can be primally offensive.
And once you add the bitterness of appropriation, and how seamless it is for Kim Kardashian and her sisters to readily adhere to the braided styles of the moment without any pushback, and with the full support of fashion editors who label the looks as “trendy” — there’s even more incentive to resent the hostility and inflexibility of a climate, that still rates Black women the lowest in the desirability category.
Every woman regardless of race or creed wants to feel beautiful, and that ability to walk into a room and own it, is usually tied into the way you feel about your tresses. Bad hair days are the ultimate buzz-kill, and when the timing coincides with events that can’t be fucked with — that’s when you almost curse God for the burden of nappy strands.
And this is why Lathan’s casting as the woman who shaves off her hair to emancipate herself from the habitual straightening doesn’t quite make sense. As much as I would like to cheer her character’s new lease on life, there’s a huge part of me that wishes the part was assigned to a relatively unknown Black actress, who resembles my template, and sports a hair texture similar to mine.
For Black women like me who have a tougher time relaxing our strands compared to our comrades, who are able to wet their edges, gel it down, and air dry to perfection in less than an hour, the stakes are higher when it comes to presenting our finished looks to a gawking and judgmental crowd.
Sanaa Lathan is a very capable actress, but I don’t have to see the movie to know that she won’t be convincing enough as the Black woman who needs to separate herself from the struggle of a high maintenance hairstyle, in order to find the deeper meaning of her roots — because that’s not a personally relatable cause.
She has always proudly exhibited her “good hair” for all to see on Instagram, just like the biracial women who splatter their pages with odes to the natural hair movement by utilizing popular hashtags to celebrate their #blackgirlmagic and the pure joy of being a #naturalista.
Lathan isn’t biracial, but she’s also not the Black woman who is ceremoniously vilified for being “too dark” or “too ethnic” for Hollywood, and she’s definitely never complained about having hair that’s too coarse for comfort.
My point is that my disappointment over the choice for lead actress, in an offering that centers around the tender topic of how hair encompasses the life’s blood of Black women, who can’t easily roll out of bed and neatly brush back the strays of their existence — has everything to do with the lack of visibility for dark-skinned Black actresses.
They never get the ingenue roles that Zendaya and Storm Reid accrue, and they are systematically shut out of the romantic comedies that star leading men who need to be paired with actresses that are demure and light enough to beef up their manhood.
Nappily Ever After had the potential to make an impressive impact, by effectively illustrating the layers of mental disarray that can be complicated by the reliance on a grooming regimen that is mandatory for emotional upkeep.
Most Black women who are challenged by their hair texture tend to hide under temporary fixes that prevent the responsibility of dealing with the root of the matter. This is why the natural hair movement is so poignantly necessary for those who’ve constantly battled the stigma of their “tight coils” and the “nappiness” that they were told would never lead to happiness.
It would’ve simply been refreshing to see a Black actress who acutely reps the image that exemplifies the validity of a movement that has been hijacked by those who can’t possibly relate to the core of the issue.
Of course, at the end of the day, the messaging will be delivered, and perhaps my pettiness will be defeated by the sheer charisma of Lathan who never fails to supremely light up the screen.
But there’s no way to avoid the truth of how these stories that are specific to the Black woman aesthetic, are often times diluted to serve the purpose of viability, due to the cast list that limits the entry of up and coming actresses with the features that are still too potent for acceptance and increased exposure.
When you imagine a dark-skinned actresses with hair that’s resistant to the straightening techniques that some Black women are able to muster with ease — embodying the character who ends up being the heroine of Nappily Ever After — that’s when the story gets the boost it needs and becomes much more than a makeshift fairytale with the predictable ending.
If we’re going to go there, then we should really go there without the security of guarded choices, that don’t yield the emotional investment that viewers like me are yearning for — and until that happens dark-skinned women with “bad hair” like me will have to continue to wait for the wave of diversity to sweep into our neck of the woods.
I just hope we don’t have to wait forever.