Photo: Courtesy of Rhadames Julian.Whether it’s a book about Afros, a performance art exhibit that draws comparisons to a petting zoo, or a New York Times trend piece, black hair remains a subject we can’t seem to stop talking about. And now, 31-year-old Harlem-based filmmaker Rhadamés Julián is jumping into the fray with his upcoming film, Follicle . Born in Puerto Rico to Dominican parents, Julián struggled with his own identity issues as a boy growing up in Texas. He began to realize just how much hair played a role in identity when he grew an Afro after high school and became a model at the age of 20. When he got the opportunity to travel to South Africa for work, he bonded with other models from different African countries over the subject of hair and society. Follicle, which will be released next year, follows Julián as he has similar discussions with artists, scholars, performers, and everyday people around the globe about why they do what they do with their ‘dos. I had a chance to chat with the filmmaker about his inspiration for the documentary and his quest to change the way people of color view themselves.
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Photo: Courtesy of Follicle Film.What made you want to explore the topic of natural hair?
"Globally speaking, when you look at the African diaspora, most people of color straighten, relax, or weave their hair. I wanted to know where all that comes from. In the U.S. and globally, we’re plagued with ideals of hair and beauty that don’t represent us at all. I don’t think any less of anyone with straight hair or a relaxer. I just have this dream that in 20 years, our hair won’t mean anything to anyone — it won’t be a political statement. In order for us to reach that goal, it starts by first accepting your hair the way it is."
You seem to be speaking primarily to women. Is the natural hair movement equally important for both genders?
"Guys aren’t the ones that are straightening and relaxing their hair. Women are the ones who have to act on it by returning to their natural hair state, but men have to be the support behind them. I think men are a large part of the reason why women wear their hair straight. I believe that a lot of women want to return to their natural hair state, but they’re afraid. They don’t want to upset their partner. It’s something that I’ll tackle in the film. I’ve met quite a few couples where the man said, ‘At first I didn’t like it, but now I love it.’ A lot of men believe that straight hair is better, but that’s only a reflection of what they have been taught. It’s something we have to address."
Photo: Courtesy of Follicle Film.The market for curly and natural hair products is booming. Do you think beauty brands are helping the natural-hair movement or hurting it?
"I think it’s great that there are more products being made for people with textured hair because the prices are coming down. Five years ago, if I wanted to find something specifically for my hair, the bottle would cost $25. Now, there is more variety and it’s less expensive. But, in general, I still think the industry is missing the mark. Products shouldn’t be tailored toward race; they should be tailored towards your texture. There are few companies who get that. Hair Rules is one of them and Ouidad is another."
Does it bother you that natural hair is seen as a trend?
"My fear is that in five years, people will say ‘remember the natural hair trend?’ I worry that the same thing that happened in the 1970s could happen again. The reason why the whole Afro moment fizzled [in the mid-'70s] is because the Afro became a symbol of rebellion, unification, and pride, but it was overly political. There were a lot of people who wouldn’t wear their hair natural because they didn’t want to be associated with that. Then, blaxpoitation films came out and it fizzled. It became commercialized. I think we need to redefine the natural hair movement."
Photo: Courtesy of Follicle Film.What do you think will help society and people of African descent embrace natural hair to the point where it’s no longer such a big deal?
"Ultimately, it’s an individual’s choice on how she wears her hair, but I believe that the way to get there is if we could get models and celebrities to embrace their natural hair texture. In the South where I grew up, girls that are four and five years of age are already being taught that they’re not pretty the way they are. That is a problem."
Photo: Courtesy of Follicle Film.What do you hope people will get out of watching your film?
"I might be 50 years ahead of my time, but someone has to cause a rift. What I learned in South Africa is that in order for us to grow, people have to be willing to put themselves in that discomfort zone. You can’t go around the issue, you have to go through it. I’m going to make people uncomfortable, but I’m going to say what’s real and inspire people to look deeper within. What I want people to take away from it, is that hair plays a huge role in their identity and who they are as a person. This film is not about race; it’s about loving yourself."
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