How ‘The Woman King,’ ‘Till’ Hairstylists Use Pin Curls and Braids to Define Looks in Black Period Films

A new renaissance in hairstyling and makeup for Black actors appears to be on the horizon, thanks to the work of female artisans on a trio of recent period films: “The Woman King,” “Till” and “A Jazzman’s Blues.”

Braiding, twists and locs were a staple for characters in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King,” set in 1823 in the African kingdom of Dahomey, now known as Benin. Hair department head Louisa Anthony researched and collaborated with locals in South Africa to secure a stellar team on the movie, which stars Viola Davis.

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Although a historian and a research specialist were on set, there was very little available photography from the period, so the makeup team relied mostly on sketches. “Google search was quite helpful in going back to discover hundreds of years of African hairstyling and braiding for us to attempt to blend today and yesterday into one creative look that maintained the authenticity of the Agoji tribe,” Anthony says.

Knowing that Black hair in its natural state can sometimes lack moisture, the African women on Anthony’s team provided juice and berry products and palm oil. Having a Black woman at the helm of a film is a rarity, and Anthony especially enjoyed collaborating with Prince-Blythewood and executing her vision.

“There was a sense of connection with African women warriors, the sisterhood struggle, power and legacy they stood for,” Anthony says. Both women aimed to keep the film as authentic as possible, while “being mindful in how we wanted these images presented on-screen,” Anthony adds.

The Woman King
Google search helped “The Woman King’s” Louisa Anthony create authentic looks of the Agoji tribe.

By comparison, there were many more images of Mamie Till for artisans to draw upon while researching her appearance. Emmett Till’s mother was active in the civil rights movement after her son’s lynching, giving speeches for the NAACP that were documented in photos available online. Mamie Till was a stylish, sophisticated, educated woman with an influential job in Chicago — and star Danielle Deadwyler’s look in Chinonye Chukwu’s film needed to reflect that.

“In the ’50s, hairstyles were achieved by doing pin curls, paper bags and rollers,” says Deaundra Metzger, hair department head.  “In essence, Chinonye just wanted to reflect who Mamie was at her core.”

Makeup department head Denise Tunnell, meanwhile, says she had a “family member that lived in Chicago and Mississippi in 1955 and grabbed research straight from those photos.”

She used vibrant red Revlon lipstick and avoided powder to ensure Black skin has a beautiful, natural glow on-screen. “I used a tinted moisturizer that isn’t as heavy as liquid of cream foundation,” Tunnell says. “You are going to be able to see the skin, but with a little bit of that glow.”

One of the first Black makeup artists to be admitted into the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Marietta Carter-Narcisse most recently tackled “A Jazzman’s Blues” for Tyler Perry. The story spans decades, so Carter-Narcisse had to create makeup that wasn’t tied to a specific era, while also showing aging and incorporating prosthetics.

Her solution for Solea Pfeiffer’s romantic lead, Leanne: a simple tube of vivid red on her lips that easily brought her face to life; nails free of gels or polish; and a demi wispy lash with no liner, creating definition while letting the eyes pop naturally.

Due to the amount of melanin in Black skin, age is often relatively difficult to detect. Carter-Narcisse showed Amirah Vann’s aging as Hattie Mae, mother of Leanne’s young love interest, Bayou, by applying makeup to her hands. “We simply grabbed photos of Amirah and her mother’s hands as a guideline,” she says.

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