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Chris Rock's 2009 documentary Good Hair shed some light on the sensitive subject of black hair - more specifically, the pressure black women feel to relax or straighten their natural hair via painful and dangerous methods in order to succeed, or even just to feel good about themselves. Now, director Justin Simien (Dear White People) is taking that deep-seated need to get that "killer weave" and making it literal with his new horror/thriller Bad Hair.
"I made this movie with a lot of love and obsession," Simien said after a screening at the Sundance Film Festival. "One of the obsessions that I hope you'll see is a love for the psycho thriller genre - everything from Psycho to Vertigo to Carrie to Body Double to Body Snatchers to The Wicker Man to Rosemary's Baby. The one thing that those movies have in common, besides being movies I love, is that there's no black people in them. So this is an attempt to fix that."
The film stars Simien's high school classmate and regular collaborator Elle Lorraine as Anna Bludso, who was scarred as a child with a scalp burn when her sister botched an attempt at a relaxer perm. That traumatic event has left her unable to trust anyone else to do her hair, which is all too apparent to the rest of her co-workers at the music video channel Culture and stymied her ambitions to be on-air talent. This is 1989, though, and Janet Jackson - er, sorry, pop star Sandra (Kelly Rowland) has just stormed onto the scene to popularize the weave, a new way to achieve the straightened look without the burn risk - although it's still an extremely painful process. When white upper management (James Van Der Beek) brings elder supermodel Zora (Vanessa Williams) on to shake up the corporate culture at Culture, Anna is sent to the enigmatic dream weaver Virgie (Laverne Cox) to take that plunge, bringing up questions of assimilation vs. identity, empowerment vs. capitulation, and whether or not the thing on her head somehow has a murderous mind of its own.
"I think everybody was excited by the challenge to do something totally different, to use the mechanisms of psycho thriller that normally white men get to sort of pour all their fetishes into and put white women in danger to say something about society," Simien said. "We felt like this could be an interesting twist."
"I felt that I could use those tools to shine a light on some of the system that I think is absurd. It's a system that honors black culture and mines black women in particular for their cultural value but does not place a value on their lives. It is a system that pits us against each other. It is a system that conditions us to want things that look like they're powerful that in fact become tools of our own oppression. I have a lot on my mind," he laughed.
Simien cited Korean horror film The Wig as an inspiration for the story, and praised Lorraine's performance as "the black Shelly Duvall in The Shining." But why set the film in 1989, exactly?
"I'm in love with this genre that sort of had its heydey in the 70s and 80s, but 1989 in particular was really a big moment for black culture for two reasons," Simien explained. "One, that literally is the year when the weave kind of takes over popular black culture. Either Ebony or Essence Magazine, beautiful cover of Janet Jackson looking amazing, giving you all that Rhythm Nation realness, and it's like 'Year Of The Weave.' That was the year women were like 'well, I can get the Pleasure Principle do, I can do somersaults and the hair will stay.' And, you know, little gay boys like me were like 'maybe me too?' but it didn't work out. I'm way too tender-headed for that s***."
"The other part of 1989 that I think is so interesting is that is the year when New Jack Swing was really at its zenith. It was the moment when essentially Keith Sweat and Janet Jackson started singing over hip hop beats, and it became a whole new genre of music. Suddenly, for urban black artists, you didn't have to have the technical precision of Whitney Houston or the perfection of Michael Jackson to make it to mainstream culture. It was this huge ascent into the mainstream. Urban black was super in vogue, but I think anyone paying attention to that time period saw that, by the end of the 90s, all that s*** that we innovated was taken from us and, now you have N'Sync and Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, they're all making New Jack Swing music, but now it's called Pop and they're the kings and queens of it. So it just felt like a time period that was right, with material and layers to explore and give you a reason to watch it again and again."
Bad Hair is currently screening in the Midnight category at the Sundance Film Festival.
Note: this is not to be confused with the OTHER film named Bad Hair at this year's Sundance, Oskar Lehemaa's horror short about a bald guy's freaky experience with hair tonic.