SUNDANCE 2020: Justin Simien’s ‘Bad Hair’ is a wild, hair-raising horror flick

Simien's sophomore film premiered at Sundance and features Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, and Robin Thede

Justin Simien premiered his sophomore feature film Bad Hair on opening night at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival to a packed house at midnight.

The star-studded follow up to his first feature film, Dear White People, is another example of the director’s knack for satire and social commentary, but this time it was Black women, (or more specifically, the mainstream pressure for them to assimilate to mainstream beauty standards) that he put on blast.

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In a film that features Lena Waithe, Vanessa Williams, Kelly Rowland, Robin Thede, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Laverne Cox, Blair Underwood, Jay Pharoah and MC Lyte, among others; there are plenty of hilarious moments and poignant points made about the way society has brainwashed Black women into believing their natural hair is a problem to be corrected at any cost.

The film’s breakout star, Elle Lorraine, is certainly a bright spot and her performance proves she’s poised to make a major mark in Hollywood. Her starring role as Anna Bludso,  an ambitious young woman is pressured into getting a weave in order to succeed in 1989’s image-obsessed world of music television, serves as the foundation of the film that highlights how Black women have been forced to assimilate if they want to make it.

Culture is the fledgling music network where she has worked tirelessly for four years, making little progress toward her dream of becoming an on-air personality despite her hard work and groundbreaking ideas. When the network undergoes an overhaul mandated by the new boss Zora ( Vanessa Williams) it’s clear that the folks who don’t look the part will be terminated. The network’s authentic approach to highlighting Black culture wasn’t working, and Zora, with her straight hair, light skin, and lighter eyes, is the prototype of the look the employees should aim for. She and the rising pop star Sandra (played by Kelly Rowland) are setting the tone for what Black women should look like.

Anna is reluctant to fall in line thanks to a horrifying at-home relaxer she endured as a child left her mentally and physically scarred for life. Still, she wants to make her dreams a reality and that means forking over money she doesn’t have to get a weave from the renowned stylist Virgie (Laverne Cox).

While the rest of the film is peppered with full-blown horror sequences like people running through dark hallways and having their blood sucked out; the most horrifying moments of the movie happen when Anna is getting her first weave. Several squirm-inducing moments of watching those cornrows getting pulled so tight it breaks the skin, and the dreaded curved needle moving through the scalp as the weave is sewn in is a reminder of the pain we endure to feel good enough.

From there, we get into the ridiculous consequences and learn that this blood-thirsty weave will kill anyone in its path. At first, the weave is a bit of a vigilante, murdering Anna’s landlord who recently raped her in her apartment.  Later, it sets its sights on anyone who gets in its way, including Anna.

Although this story is thoroughly entertaining it does get a little messy and when compared to the work of Jordan Peele (whose inspiration seems to be all over this project) Bad Hair falls a bit short. Still, it’s an innovative approach to demonstrating the horrors of what it means to be a Black woman in America and the price we all pay to play a game that is inevitably rigged against us.