Since the early origins of the genre in the late 1800s, horror films have mostly been told through a very white lens. If people of color, particularly Black people, ever appeared in these stories, the running joke has been that we're always the first to be picked off by the ghosts or axe murderers. However, the genre is slowly but surely evolving as Black filmmakers pull up a seat to the table to tell new stories. And these new ideas of horror often lean into something even more bone-chilling than the undead or an exorcism: a culture of anti-Blackness.
New Hulu film Bad Hair is no exception. The project, the latest brainchild of filmmaker Justin Simien (the mind behind both the 2014 movie and subsequent TV adaptation of Dear White People), attempts to tackle the consequences of anti-Blackness through a cultural examination of Black hair in the late 1980s.
Anna (played by newcomer Elle Lorraine), a young Black woman with dreams of being the next big video jockey, struggles to get ahead at her job. Even though she's talented and bright, she just can't seem to catch a break; after years of working at the MTV-inspired Culture TV network, Anna is stuck in a dead-end job as a personal assistant while her best ideas are being taken by her co-workers (Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, and Yaani King). When a glamorous new executive (Vanessa Williams) joins the team, determined to make the very Black brand more "marketable" to mainstream audiences (read: less Black), Anna quickly learns exactly what's been holding her back all these years: her kinky natural textured hair. So she solves the problem by finally getting her hair done at a professional salon, enduring hours of pain for a silky sew-in. But what she doesn't know is that her success comes with a painful price tag.
Simien fully understands that he's not exactly the authority on Black women's nuanced relationship with our hair; although much of his childhood and adolescence was shaped by the Black women who raised him, the filmmaker will never intimately understand that struggle. Nonetheless, his deep connection to and interest in Black femininity led Simien to want to explore the concept further. To help contextualize the experience and inform his writing, he gathered a group of Black women in Palm Springs for a casual retreat where he just listened to them share their personal stories.
"I've always felt like there was an absence of stories speaking to Black women," Simien told Refinery29 over the phone. "And I felt like I was both insider and outsider. I could comment on what I was seeing from the outside looking in, but I also knew that I needed to do my research and ask the right questions."
"Really, what I was trying to get down to [during the retreat] was what their actual fears were," he continued. "What they were worried about as Black women who were ambitious and trying to make it in a society that wasn't necessarily built for them. The truths that came out of those conversations were what I hung the horror of this story on."
Bad Hair is a supernatural horror story through and through, marked by mystical hair extensions with a taste for human blood (don't ask), but it is also an important social commentary. The film tackles the unfortunate global phenomenon of misogynoir, a term coined by academic scholars Moya Bailey and Trudz (@Trudz on Twitter) to describe the uniquely evil intersection of sexism and racism. Sitting at the juncture of racism and misogyny, Black women often face distressing high levels of discrimination as well as personal and systemic injustices. Misogynoir manifests in a number of ways, including increased risk of falling victim to violence of any kind (and lower rates of legal justice for said violence), higher chances of dying while pregnant, colorism, and more.
The professional glass ceiling is another manifestation of misogynoir, making it that much harder for Black women across industries to move up in our careers and be fairly compensated for our labor. In Bad Hair, Anna's main barrier to success is her appearance, specifically her choice to not alter her hair from its natural state; it's only when she decides to change her appearance to cater to mainstream expectations of what a VJ is supposed to look like that she achieves notable success in her field. And she isn't alone in her assimilation. Many of the Black women at Culture TV travel down a similar path in order to make some sort progress, not realizing that the survival tactic they've turned to out of desperation is also slowly taking over their very souls in the process.
It would be easy, at first glance, to simply see the film as a condemnation of weave or any hairstyle other than the tresses that grow out of our own heads. But its message isn't to chuck your 24 inches of virgin Brazilian body wave and undetectable lacefront wigs — they aren't the villain of this story. It's actually the opposite. What Simien is actually trying to pick apart is a society that makes us feel like we have no other choice but to be something than our ourselves in order to exist safely and happily in this world.
"I wanted to interrogate a system that only pretends to give women a choice," Simien explained. "We live in a world where we have to pass legislation like the CROWN Act. That alone tells us that we don't actually have a choice but are being conditioned from a young age that the way we were born is not acceptable or appropriate. There's never a point where we ask ourselves, 'Who do we want to be in this world?' We're just given a bar to jump, and that's just what we do because what else can we do?"
When developing the plot for Bad Hair, the filmmaker wanted to link up with a cast of Black creatives who would understand the conversation he wanted to spark through the movie because of their own what their experiences with anti-Blackness. To bring the plot and its stars together, Simien didn't hesitate to cast Lorraine, a natural-born performer (and fellow Houstonian) who was looking for her big break.
"In the world of white corporate America, do we ever get to be just us without shrinking ourselves based on someone else's ideas of how we should be? Do we even have that option?"
As a Black woman, Lorraine knows firsthand the weight of misogynoir, and she's know stranger to the external and internal pressure so many of us often feel to change. She herself big chopped in her early twenties and embarked on her own natural hair journey, that experience lending to a whole new understanding of her identity as a person and and as a Black woman. The actress immediately connected to Bad Hair's lead and to its script because it is a story that she completely related to, even down to the painful chemical burns that younger Anna experiences at the start of the film.
"I just knew that I had to play this part in the film," she revealed. "There were so many moments that I had a visceral reaction to throughout the movie, moments that I have personally lived through."
"One of the things that stood out to me [from Bad Hair] was the fact that it calls out the idea that we have to make ourselves palatable in order to be successful in this society so heavily based on European beauty ideals," said Lorraine. "The fact that coming as I am sometimes feels like it's not good enough — we have to strike that from the conversation and start a new one because coming as my whole unique self is precisely what makes me the best version of myself."
Even as she worked on the project, Lorraine's understanding of her hair began to transform without her consciously realizing it. The portrayal of a woman held hostage to societal ideals of beauty actually inspired the actress to loosen her own grip on her personal beauty routine; she went from only wearing her natural hair out to exploring other styles, experimenting with braids and twists at whim. For Lorraine, Anna's story taught her how to part ways with the limitations that she had unknowingly placed upon herself.
"After the film wrapped, I gave myself to be more playful," she explained. "I let myself off the hook because I realized that my hair was my crown, but it is also a hat that I get to put on and get to wear however I want to. Since then, I've been so much more explorative."
"That's what Bad Hair is trying to flesh out — whether or not we have that choice to do what we want and be who we want," Lorraine continued. "In the world of white corporate America, do we ever get to be just us without shrinking ourselves based on someone else's ideas of how we should be? Do we even have that option?"
Sadly, the answer is that Black women don't always have choices; we spend so much of our lives trying to follow rules that weren't written with us to mind and will never apply to us, no matter how close we stick to them. In Bad Hair and in reality, the thing that goes bump in the night is the insidious evil that follows us no matter where we go simply on the basis that we are both women and Black.
The real horror of this film is misogynoir, because it feels like we may never be able to escape it — whether we're wearing weave or a coily afro.