Horror movies often recycle ~spooky~ villains—see: anything featuring ghosts, vampires, or dolls—but in Bad Hair, the antagonist is entirely brand-new: a Black woman’s weave.
“Bad hair” and “good hair” have long been used in Black communities to refer to how loosely curled one’s hair is—the straighter, we're told, the better. Bad Hair, a comedy-horror film now streaming on Hulu from writer and director Justin Simien (Dear White People), reimagines Black hair politics as body horror.
Set in 1989, the film follows Anna (Elle Lorraine) as she climbs the ladder at Culture, a Black music TV company. When Zora (Vanessa Williams) takes over company leadership, she offers Anna a long-overdue promotion…and encourages her to cover her natural coils with a silky straight weave from luxury hairstylist Virgie (Laverne Cox). Anna obliges, but she gets far more than she bargained for when her new weave gains a mind—and appetite—of its own.
It’s all very campy, and intentionally so. Most of the horror here is more laughable than scary; it is a movie about killer weaves, after all. It's risky, to be sure, but some of the most successful scenes are grounded in real-life experiences, ones that many viewers will relate to. Under the reign of white beauty standards, Black women’s hair care—traditionally a space of love and empowerment—is also sometimes a site of pain. The process of straightening one’s hair can be violent, involving injured skin, broken hair, and years of trauma. Sometimes getting your hair done just hurts. Have a too-rough stylist or a too-tender scalp and it may indeed feel like you’re going through a truly sinister experience.
In a post–Get Out world, all racial traumas are now horror fodder. But rarely has a trauma so specific to Black womanhood been the subject of a scary movie. Many women watching this film will recognize the pain wrought upon Anna as she sits in the salon chair because we’ve been through the IRL equivalent at one point or another.
Plus, Lorraine is brilliant as the film’s lead, deftly commanding both creepy and comic scenes with ease. The other actors are also a delight to watch, with Vanessa Williams, Laverne Cox, Kelly Rowland, Lena Waithe, and Robin Thede all turning out hilarious performances. Add in appearances by Usher, MC Lyte, Jay Pharaoh, and Blair Underwood, and the movie feels like a fun family reunion of your favorite Black celebrities.
So if there’s one fault to be found with Bad Hair, it’s the pace. The movie is slow to scare, and less patient viewers might wonder if they accidentally pressed play on the wrong film. By the time we get into the truly funny-spooky bits, the movie is almost over. At times it’s as if Bad Hair can’t decide whether to make you laugh, make you think, or disturb you. At other points, it manages to do all three.
And the slower parts of the movie are still entertaining to watch. Anna’s struggles at her white-owned company feel very familiar in 2020. While young Black people are less likely to weaponize the term “bad hair” now, similar judgments have been passed down in the form of hair typing: From 2a to 4c, the kinkier your hair, the further you are from mainstream beauty ideals and so-called professionalism. Black women’s hair is never “just hair.”
It’s worth pointing out that, in Bad Hair, the weaves are supposed to be the bad guys, not the women who wear them. But at times throughout the film, one wonders if having a killer weave might actually be useful and empowering. Black women are often so bereft of real choices. That this movie wasn’t written by a Black woman, but instead by a Black man, is also relevant to its reading.
Hair politics are complicated. Blackness is complicated too. Bad Hair attempts to touch on all of these complexities, from colorism to classism and more, all in its own campy way. It does so unevenly—but that’s not surprising, for a lighthearted film that deals with such ambitious themes.
What Bad Hair does best is reveal how much untapped material there is in the diverse and layered world of Black hair. The terms “good hair” and “bad hair” have only rarely gotten the film treatment before—like in Chris Rock’s 2009 documentary Good Hair—but the possibilities are truly endless. This one-of-a-kind social thriller makes that clear.
Kim Wong-Shing is a New Orleans–based writer and editor with bylines in Bitch Media, Autostraddle, Bustle, and more. Visit her website, kimwongshing.com.
Originally Appeared on Glamour