Sundance Review – Bad Hair is a Good Pretender

Director: Justin Simien
Starring: Elle Lorraine, Vanessa Williams, Lena Waithe, etc.
Topher Osborn

Justin Simien is back with his satire flair to blend horror and comedy as a means to tackle and examine “bad hair” and the roots of all its evil. The writer-director, most notably recognized for his 2014 Sundance directorial debut, Dear White People, has a keen way of criticizing cultural & social problems through humor and irony. This time around, however, he neglects to criticize the actual politics and issues concerning the concept at the center of his latest feature. As a result, Bad Hair comes off as a second-rate and dishonest commentary that contains everything but the actual commentary.

The story follows Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine) on her quest to be heard and seen on Culture- an urban music video TV show. As her company undergoes a revamp, Anna’s fears of not being good enough become a reality when her new boss Zora (Vanessa Williams) encourages her to change her looks (and hair) to become more successful. Just as Anna begins to embrace her new weave, it seemingly forms a mind of its own, wreaking havoc and bloody mayhem whenever it sees fit.

Bad Hair — Still 1
Courtesy of Sundance Institute

As a horror-comedy, Bad Hair is creative and fun, though a little too ambitious for its own good. It convincingly captures a time (early ’90s) when urban culture had a profound impact on society and hair within the black community evolved. As a satire, however, the film struggles to define its judgements. A satire really only works when viewpoints & social issue origins are exposed for what they are and the problems they create within society. But that’s exactly what Bad Hair refuses to do. Instead, it paints a dishonest picture regarding black women and hair while it simultaneously pretends to denounce the problem that started it all, save a cheap reveal by the film’s end. 

Take all of the supporting characters, for example. Most of the people in Anna’s life- friends, family and coworkers are all black. They are the ones who constantly make a note of the degrading beauty norms brought on by “colonizers,” though some are more hesitant to take on the new trend. Yet, most of them are such big champions for these drastic changes, that it’s hard to understand who Simien wanted to criticize.

Maybe it’s both the complacency of black women in regards to accepting new beauty standards and the perpetrators at large. But if that were the case, why not show both equally? It comes off rather accusatory- almost as if director Justin Simien wanted to blame black women for being in such a predicament in the first place. Or, that our complacency is firmly embedded in our thoughts or culture because of self-hatred. Otherwise, why even go through it? “We all have a choice,” right? A little balance here would’ve gone a long way.

Bad Hair - Press Line
Cast & Crew of Bad Hair | Courtesy of Sundance Institute 

But Bad Hair isn’t just bad because it refuses to acknowledge the origin perspective of which they aimed to criticize. It’s not particularly good because it neglected the foundation on which the premise was built. Before the world premiere, director Justin Simien said he had one group in mind while making this feature: black women. But for a film that’s supposed to catechize a system that borrows ideas, culture and everything else in between from black women, it forgot to include our perspective. And in doing so, the entire script feels like one giant mockery that aims to crowd-please over educating the ignorant and/or condemning the system responsible. 

Even ignoring all of its faults concerning commentary and actual satire, Bad Hair struggles to not settle for campy horror tropes after its exceptional opening act. It can be fun at times, but the negatives are so obtrusive that it’s easy to forget about the positives. Perhaps that is what frustrates me most of all- the film’s massive potential was undercut by a script that caters to an idea rather than its execution. 

Rating: ★★

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