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AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
In the horror movie satire "Bad Hair," a meek young woman named Anna becomes emboldened after getting her very first weave. At first, the new do brings her professional and personal success. But soon enough, it begins to take on a mysterious life of its own. This is the second feature from Justin Simien, filmmaker behind the 2014 indie film "Dear White People." As with that franchise, his follow-up is heavy on social commentary and cheeky pastiche served up via a star-studded cast that includes Vanessa Williams and Lena Waithe.
I'm Aisha Harris, and we're talking about the Hulu film "Bad Hair" on this episode of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so come right back.
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HARRIS: Welcome back. Here with me from her home in Los Angeles is entertainment journalist and producer Joelle Monique.
Hi, Joelle. Welcome.
JOELLE MONIQUE: Hi, Aisha. Thanks for having me back. I'm excited to be here, especially talking about this movie and talking about it with you. It's going to be fun.
HARRIS: Yes. I have a feeling it's going to be very fun just from hearing your initial thoughts about it.
So let's set this up with a little bit of background first. "Bad Hair" is set in 1989 Los Angeles, and it tells a story of Anna, who's an assistant at a Black TV network. Think BET. So she dreams of hosting her own music countdown show but is having trouble being taken seriously, in part because of her very timid persona, but also due to her natural hairstyle. A new boss comes in, played by Vanessa Williams, and she steps in to revamp the network. And she tells Anna that if she wants to get ahead, she's going to need to straighten her hair. So after Anna pays a visit to the most sought-after stylist in the city, weird things start to happen. And there's a lot of commentary about Black hair and office culture. But the film is also drawing from a whole host of other cultural references, including '70s and '80s horror films and the new jack swing era.
Joelle, why don't you tell us a little bit about your first impressions of the film?
MONIQUE: Yeah. I'm like a Justin Simien stan. Like, when his first movie came out, I was like, this is it for me. I watched it, like, five or six times. I loved his structure, his very clear callbacks to, like, early Spike Lee Joints. Like, there's so much to love about Justin's, like, style and approach to filmmaking. And I found myself loving a lot of those things in this movie.
I love the idea of, like, not just video killed the radio star, but how did it impact Black radio, which was so - like, your local radio DJ or your local, like, TV spot was it. Like, those people were the leaders of that small cultural community. And as big international channels came in and then later with the advent of the Internet, we saw those small, like, hometown personalities disappear.
Now, there's definitely a conversation to be had about Instagram sort of bringing those personalities back and, like, your local favorites or whatever. But I've never seen before, like, this time period, critiqued for Black people in this cultural way. So I was interested in how hair was going to be perceived and how we were going to look at the very Afrocentric '70s, which was all about empowering the people - and I've been listening to a lot of Stevie Wonder lately - this idea of, like, let's make sure all of our kids are educated on stuff, too; the '80s, which saw a ton of white flight from inner cities, which saw a lot of changeover as we looked, like, in major corporations and how you could appear if you were Black.
Then, somewhere, like, maybe around the halfway point, I felt like we lost a lot of that focus and we went straight into B camp horror. And I am particularly fond of the genre. But when you try to mix that with, like, social commentary and then there's not a clear throughline on that social commentary, it gets murky. Like, I didn't understand, why was hair the evil thing? And then if hair is evil and it's connected to this witch, who is that witch? There was, like, some talk about Indigenous lore. There was some talk about, like, old slave lore. There's, like, a character we see earlier who appears in this, like, witch setting. And you're like, why is this person here? And was this their throughline the whole time? And why didn't we see more of that? It just got - it was, like, very hard to follow and, like, sink my teeth into really the second act 'cause the third act, other than the teaser at the end, was rather enjoyable. It's a mixed bag of feelings, Aisha. I'm all over the place.
HARRIS: I'm so glad you said all of that because I agree with a lot of it. I do think that I liked it a little bit more than you did. I've seen it twice now. I originally saw it at Sundance earlier this year. And rewatching it now, I think it resonated a little bit more for me than the first time around. What worked for me were a lot of the things that I think didn't work in "Dear White People." I think I was one of the few people, when that movie came out, who was not as in love with it. It was definitely a huge critical darling and festival darling when it came out. And I was just kind of like, well, it's really pretty. I appreciate all of the, like, Wes Anderson/Spike Lee homages, and it's very ambitious and tries to take all these ideas about what it means to be a Black person on a college campus these days. But it didn't all land for me because it just felt, at the end of the day, that there were just too many ideas, and none of them really stuck the landing.
The same thing is happening here in many ways. Actually, for me, the third act worked the least for me 'cause there's, like, this big reveal. And I think this is a product of, in part, this sort of era we are living in. We had you on last time to talk about "Antebellum," and we also have stuff like "Lovecraft Country" and "Get Out." And I feel like the last few years, there's been a lot of these attempts to take racism and plop it into horror.
HARRIS: And not that this is a new thing - this has been a thing for forever, like even the original "Candyman." But I would love to talk a little bit about just, like, the opening shot and, like, what your relationship to your own hair has been because...
HARRIS: ...For me, I liked the conceit of it because I do think Black women have a very - can have a very fraught relationship with their hair. I have - I don't know if you have; I don't want to assume you have. But it's just - I like the idea of putting all of that into this horror commentary. And I think that it works. But I'm curious, like, what specifically wasn't working for you when it came to the horror-comedy aspect?
MONIQUE: OK. So for the opening, like, scene was really great. Like, the whole idea of - like, I definitely had had my hair relaxed as a - I think I was, like, 5 or 6 the first time for Christmas because that's when you're supposed to look fancy, and straight hair is fancy.
MONIQUE: And like, yeah, it burned, and I was called tenderhearted. And they were like, stop all that hollering. I'm like, but I'm literally in pain. In high school, I cut it all off, and then I went natural. And then I had a hairstylist sneak, like - they call it texturizer; it's basically a chemical straightener - sneak it in my hair when I was like, oh, I'm going natural. Like, please don't put any product in my hair. And they were like, no, because this is how we've always done your hair. And that was devastating. I was three years into my natural journey, had to start all over again. So I had to do a second big chop. So it's been a long road to get to a place where I am now, which is like I love my natural hair. I'm a wash-and-go person every day. It's so easy.
I always thought my hair was a complication. Right? And it comes from this era of any type of afro is seen as, like, militant. And when I went natural, that was - were the words my mother would use. She'd be like, people are going to think that you're militant. And I was like, well, if they see my chubby cheeks and they meet me, they will know that I'm not.
MONIQUE: Like, I am - don't like...
HARRIS: I'm adorable. How could you?
MONIQUE: Right, exactly. Look at these curls. It's amazing. So that was sort of my hair journey - and so getting to see, like, those aspects of it. Specifically, I had such a hard time with the first time Anna gets her weave in. I was like...
MONIQUE: OK. So on the one hand, it's so good. Like, it's so good because it's so creepy. Like, that nail next to the scalp. Like, it starts making you think like, oh, I've never had the needle close to my scalp, but I definitely know, like, the pulling and the - it's too tight, and it hurts, and you want to cry. And, like, all of that emotional journey to get to a place where you're accepted is, like, wonderful. But that's what I was missing in Act 2 - was that acceptance of Anna's character, this like - we have these bits where she's like, oh, I'm conflicted. But there's never a moment where she's like, oh, my God, this hair is working.
And the hair is not the problem. The weave is not the problem. The fact that it hurts really isn't a problem. It seems almost extra at points. You're like, you shouldn't be bleed - if you're bleeding, that's a bad sew-in. Like, bad job - you should stop immediately. So I felt conflicted. I was like, oh, am I examining something in my culture? And is this an accurate portrayal of that, or is this an exaggeration?
And then on top of that, does it exaggeration work? Does it tell the whole truth? Because they try to have it both ways in the movie - they try to make it be like, oh, you should be able to have your hair however you want. That should be your decision, and you should be comfortable with that. But the hair is still technically the villain. And so that's the messaging that got lost for me. I don't truly know how Anna feels about the hair other than it hurts, so she didn't like that. And there was like some big mysterious thing around it that made it, like, hard for her to accept. It's just very confusing. It's like, how am I supposed to feel about hair at the end of this?
HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, I do want to say that, like, I think that scene with the weave going in - I - to me, that was probably the most brilliantly crafted moment, just the way - the editing technique of that and the way in which it really plays with body horror. The whole film is very much like pulling from things like "The Thing" and "The Fly." And I think for me, that worked at least on a very visceral level. And even though I have myself never had a weave before, I definitely was on that creamy crack, as they called it (laughter)...
HARRIS: ...For, like, a good 10, 11 years of my life. And then I went natural. And then I recently just got box braids for the first time. And I was 32, and I finally decided to do it. And it was amazing, and now I love them.
HARRIS: But I do want to talk a little bit about just some of the performances 'cause I think the casting here was actually really pretty spot on.
MONIQUE: On point, yes.
HARRIS: Elle Lorraine plays Anna. And I hadn't noticed her, although she's been in a few things before this, including the TV version of "Dear White People." And here, I think she's just - even though everything is not quite as clear as it could be, I do think she has, like, a clarity to her performance because you understand from that first scene where we see her as a young girl getting her hair burned that there is some trauma there. And her trying to wrestle with that and trying to, like, assert her voice, I think, really, really works for me. I also think Vanessa Williams as her boss is just fantastic. It's giving me, you know, "Ugly Betty" vibes again.
HARRIS: Like, she - I love seeing her being the sort of villain.
MONIQUE: She seemed like one of the few people who knew what movie she was in.
MONIQUE: Vanessa was like, I'm going to give you a B-movie horror villain. And it's all giant teased hair and very sharp looks. And it allowed her to do a lot. Like, she's so funny. And I feel like she does it so naturally, it's often overlooked. Laverne Cox, too, as the, like, spooky, what-is-she-really-about hairdresser was so good. Like, that scene was giving me very much, like, "Little Shop Of Horrors." But...
HARRIS: Yes, yes.
MONIQUE: ...We know - like, the proprietor is in on the horror. And she just did - like, I really liked her. She excelled in this.
HARRIS: I also really appreciated Kelly Rowland, who is basically playing Janet Jackson (laughter).
HARRIS: She's playing this superstar known as Sandra. And it actually turns out Justin Simien, I think, wrote the original songs for this. And so...
MONIQUE: I liked the music a lot.
HARRIS: The music was also really a highlight because, you know, as we mentioned earlier, he's very much tapping into, like, this new jack swing. They referenced Teddy Riley and how it's, like, coming up. And I just really appreciated the long musical sequences (laughter) and the way in which the office politics was way more clear-eyed than the actual, like, bigger commentary about hair. I liked the way in which they kind of talked about the fact that Black women had a harder time standing out. Her colleague/romantic - on and off again romantic partner played by Jay Pharoah, who's really a jerk, they mentioned how he was promoted over her, even though she's the one who would be a better musical TV host.
MONIQUE: And, like, all of that, from the gender politics to the race politics to the colorism politics, all beautifully fleshed out - and I think that's what's so frustrating. It's like hair is such a secondary feature. So many elements of this didn't work in the hair department. But in the office politics, in examining how do you have to change as a Black person in order to succeed in your industry of choice, especially looking at, like - again, there's a huge racial divide that happens in the '80s that we as a country have not begun to talk about yet. If you listen to "You Must Remember This" podcast, one my favorite things ever...
HARRIS: Oh, yeah - Karina Longworth's podcast.
MONIQUE: Yes. Karina Longworth - just this amazing, like, retelling of "Song Of The South" - and she looks at the journey throughout history. And she discovered that in the '80s, it had the highest box office that movie ever had - so bigger than its initial release. And she connects it to this, like, white flight, this drug war problem, like all of these issues we had in the '80s.
And I feel like this movie is just circling this, like, really interesting point in history and circling these office politics that remain true today. And I was like, I don't care about the hair (laughter). Like, I just didn't care about, like, the hair and this evil witch corporation. I was so drawn into what was being told in those office politics that that was the part of the movie that was just, like, striking and really gripping me.
HARRIS: I mean, I do wonder - you know, this was written and directed and produced by Justin Simien, who is a Black man. And I never want to say that filmmakers can't make the movies they want to make. And I'm - I am glad that he attempted to do this. But there could be this sort of divide because he hasn't had the same relationship with his hair. And look; I'm sure he probably spoke with a lot of women and had feedback on it. And I'm sure the actresses in the film probably had some input as well. But if that's the one place where, at least for you and I think for me as well, to some extent, it doesn't quite gel together, I think that might have something to do with that.
MONIQUE: All the journeys that Black women have had to go through with their hair - to make that the central evil and then to not understand what that evil means in the context of the story by the end and, like, how has it been playing out over the centuries? - it instantly creates a disconnect because it makes it difficult to emotionally connect as a Black woman who's had a journey with her hair. But if Justin Simien wants to do more office politics movies, I'm going to be first in line. It was so good.
Well, that about wraps it up. Thank you so much, Joelle, for joining us again. It was great to have you.
MONIQUE: Thank you, Aisha. This was great. Really appreciate it.
HARRIS: And we want to know what you think about "Bad Hair." You can find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @PCHH. And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We'll see you all tomorrow.
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