Hair There and Everywhere
A review by Brennan Klein.
I'm not a Black woman, a woman of color, or as a matter of fact a woman of any stripe. I do have a long history of watching horror and analyzing its subtext, so I don't feel unequipped to approach Justin Simien's Bad Hair, which is now available on Hulu. But if you want to supplement my take with a review of this film from someone who will have more personal insight into the specific cultural context this film takes place in, I encourage you to do so and I would highly recommend you start here or here.
In Bad Hair, we follow the story of Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine) a young assistant at an MTV analogue in 1989 who has always had dreams of being a VJ. Well, I guess when she was a kid it would have been a DJ, but video has killed the radio star in the meantime. When Culture, the network's branch focused on Black music and art, undergoes severe cutbacks and rebranding under new boss Zora (Vanessa Williams), she is tacitly given marching orders to get a weave and give up her natural hairstyle in order to fit in and succeed. Unfortunately the weave she gets literally has a mind of its own - and a thirst for blood.
First and foremost, this horror comedy is on a mission to turn the microaggressions that Black women face every day into macroaggressions that threaten to tear the fabric of reality apart. In this regard, it's entirely successful. Its most memorable and unambiguously terrific moment is the sequence where Anna first gets the weave (from a particularly ethereal Laverne Cox, no less). Hooks dig into Anna's scalp in an extreme close-up that would make Candyman gag, edited in quick stabbing jolts of blood filling the space between tight braids.
I couldn't think of a more visceral or clear way to externalize the violence of a society that forces people to crush their identities and the bodies attached to them into tiny microscopic nothings in order to "assimilate." However, while Bad Hair has an exciting and propulsively delivered thesis, it fails to follow up on that thesis in a particularly clear or satisfying way.
The film clearly wants Anna to have a Faustian relationship with the doors to success that her weave is able to open, but it doesn't satisfactorily depict the story you instinctually know it's trying to tell. There just isn't a big change between the Anna we meet before the weave and the Anna we follow after, beyond a few basic external details and the occasional scene that lets her exert her power via hairy murder. In short, her life hasn't improved enough for there to be a legitimate temptation to keep the hair, which should be the driving conflict for at least the second act.
Plus, frankly for a horror comedy, it doesn't seem particularly concerned with being either funny or horrific for any sustained period of time. The best jokes are contained in the first and final 15 minutes, but the inordinately bland middle stretch doesn't learn into the horror enough to correct the imbalance. There are a few fun moments of J-horror-esque hair mayhem, but a crushing pile of scenes of Anna wincing and clutching her scalp in between. I admit it would be hard to reach the dynamic heights of the salon scene, but Bad Hair doesn't seem particularly interested in even trying in the first place.
It's a shame that so much of Bad Hair is so dry, because it's assembled a terrific cast without a single weak link, including Jay Pharoah (as the kind of horror movie boyfriend you itch to see summarily murdered), Kelly Rowland (as a crossover starlet who is half Janet Jackson, half Michael Jackson), Nicole Byer (a glittering standout in roughly 30 seconds of screentime as Anna's neighbor), James van der Beek (who after Pose seems content to build his niche on being a horrible 80's business douche), and too many more to name and maintain an appropriate word count.
Bad Hair certainly has its head in the right place. It knows exactly what it's saying and how to approach it, it just misses the mark on crafting a compelling text to hold that subtext securely within its loving arms.
Brennan Klein is a millennial who knows way more about 80's slasher movies than he has any right to. You can find his other reviews on his blog Popcorn Culture. Follow him on Twitter, if you feel like it.