There is a hilarious moment in Black Panther when Okoye (Danai Gurira) — the general of Wakanda’s all-female and all-bald kingsguard — has to go undercover in a wig. “It’s a disgrace,” she spits to T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) as they enter an underground casino. She hopes that their mission will wrap quickly so that she can get the “ridiculous” thing off her head. Okoye’s preference for her shiny, bald ‘do is deep-seated and important. Sanaa Lathan, the star of the new Netflix original film Nappily Ever After, falls into a hearty laugh when she mentions this part of the superhero movie to me during our phone conversation. After shaving her own head on camera for this role, the Black Panther scene has stuck with her. For Lathan, Okoye’s disdain for the wig was just one piece of a changing narrative about black women and their manes. “The conversation, culturally, with black women and natural hair — with more and more women in the public eye wearing their hair — it couldn’t have been a better time for [Nappily Ever After] to come out,” she asserts.
The connection that Lathan makes between Black Panther — which is full of black women wearing their hair in all kinds of natural styles — and Nappily Ever After is perhaps even deeper than she realises. The Marvel film grappled with the concept of black excellence and how it can sometimes fail black communities. Nappily Ever After raises the same questions by focusing specifically on black women and our hair. The part of our bodies that has been politicised and theorised about the most keeps its value thanks to internalised class and respectability politics.
Lathan plays Violet, an ad executive who has been raised to have the perfect life. She has a great career, a great boyfriend who’s a doctor, and most importantly, perfect hair. Her mother (Lynn Whitfield) — recently divorced and extremely preoccupied with how the rest of the world views her and “what people will say” — still comes over to straighten it for her. When her boyfriend doesn’t propose and they break up, Violet does what many women before her have done when faced with relationship adversity: She starts to change her hair. And after one alcohol-riddled night, she uses her ex-boyfriend's clippers to shave it all off. What happens next is a journey towards self-love and acceptance that she couldn’t have fathomed before she was willing to let go of her tresses and the facade of perfection that came with them.
To call Nappily Ever After, based on the eponymous 2000 novel by Trisha Thomas, timely is a bit of an oversimplification. It took executive producer Tracey Bing (Southside With You) over a decade to get this project made. Its viability and relevance is not the result of a renewed interest in black beauty politics, but the constant reality that black women’s hair is never just about aesthetics. Bing told me that black hair has “always has been a source of conversation,” and she notices the differences between her mother’s generation and her own in their feelings about appropriate hair. Her mother’s generation prioritised straightened hair as a symbol of middle-class values. Our generation is leaning into the natural hair movement as a source of cultural awareness and pride.
Even though the black hair landscape is one that is openly embracing natural hair and styles, Bing admits that there are still “judgments” about hair. And when Lathan — one of the black actresses known for her beauty — debuted her bald fade, it made headlines. When it comes to black women, the personal is always political, in Wakanda, Violet’s Atlanta, and real life. You’ll learn just as much about black female identity in Nappily Ever After as you will about a big chop.