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Six years after he reframed black identity through a smart, satirical lens using a liberal college campus as his prism in Dear White People, writer-director Justin Simien digs into a society that encourages African American women to conform to narrow perceptions of beauty, sometimes paying the price of self-abnegation. While it’s more in line with the freewheeling, absurdist comedy of Sorry to Bother You than the elevated horror of Jordan Peele’s films, Bad Hair falls not entirely comfortably between those two poles and is at its best when all-out campy B-movie mayhem takes hold. But there’s plenty of fun when that happens.
The premise is built around a killer weave that takes over the lives of women working at a Los Angeles urban music culture cable network. Simien’s plot borrows from Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Stepford Wives, among others, but the visual influences are steeped in J- and K-horror, with something of a debt to the 2005 Korean feature The Wig; there’s also a generous hint of Tsui Hark-style Chinese fantasy when the lethal black tendrils start flying.
A brief prologue shows a young Compton girl living with her aunt and uncle, whose cousin misreads the instructions on a bottle of hair relaxer and leaves the kid with bald patches and a badly burnt scalp.
Cut to 1989, when the victim of that home-haircare mishap, Anna (appealing newcomer Elle Lorraine), has been toiling as an assistant to EVP of programming Edna (Judith Scott) at Culture network for four years, hoping for a promotion. But when corporate overseer Grant Madison (James Van Der Beek) declares that new blood is needed to turn around the division, he ushers in famed black supermodel Zora (Vanessa Williams) as chief, and jobs are suddenly on the line.
Imperious Zora’s sleek, raven tresses look like something out of the Kylie Jenner wig collection, and she makes no secret of her stringent appearance requirements for women working at the network, even canceling a popular show called Hair Beat, hosted by Brook-Lynne (Lena Waithe, spinning comedy gold out of a peripheral role). Another show anchored by Sista Soul (Yaani King Mondschein) also earns the thumbs down, along with patronizing comments from Zora about the host’s “earthy, dashiki vibe.”
Anna gets Zora’s attention with her proposal to broaden the demographic by reshaping different segments that feed into a daily live top-hits countdown, getting out in front as hip-hop is being absorbed into the white mainstream. But while she dangles an associate-producer carrot, the new boss suggests that a more sophisticated look might help Anna’s chances. She slips her a card for Virgie’s Salon, which is leading the charge on what a black glamour magazine called Creamy dubs “The Sew-In Revolution.” Before long, Virgie (Laverne Cox) takes Anna by the hand, guiding her into a back room curtained in hair and whispering, “Let’s find her.”
All this is frequently amusing, though far too protracted as setup, and at close to two hours, the movie feels severely stretched. Even once the new-look Anna starts flipping her long locks with confidence — albeit also with agonizing pain — the action remains sluggish.
Simien loads up on too many underused secondary characters, like pop star Sandra, played by Kelly Rowland, whose chief purpose seems to be starring in a music video in which she goes full Paula Abdul with the dance moves. (Simien wrote the period-pastiche songs.) As Sandra’s boyfriend, Usher has even less to do. Likewise, a VJ character named Julius (Jay Pharoah), who dumps Anna for Zora and then more or less disappears.
There’s also a subplot that feels half-baked right down to the final twist, with folkloric references stretching back to slave days, when a “house negress” became enchanted with the filigreed greenery from Spanish moss trees, using it to make a wig. The supernatural elements of that story do feed the main narrative, however, and as Anna’s hair starts exerting its own demonic power, she becomes increasingly torn over whether to capitalize on her new self-assurance or break free from its disturbing spell.
There’s definitely a tighter, more disciplined movie trapped in here begging for a more rigorous edit. Like a head full of split ends, it needs trimming. Simien makes some sharp points about the disproportionate weight placed on relaxed hair in black women’s self-image. “People look at you like you’re somebody,” says Anna, marveling at the favorable impression she makes on office colleagues to whom she was previously invisible. “You become more of yourself.”
But Bad Hair works best when it moves away from its fairly basic social commentary and goes for broke with batshit craziness when the greater purpose of Virgie’s transformed clients is revealed. Led by Williams’ gloriously witchy Zora in snake-eyed Medusa mode, the weave women raise hell to protect their own, with the carnage growing progressively more outlandish as the lustrous manes become lethal weapons.
Simien and cinematographer Topher Osborn go for lots of insidious low angles, and Kris Bowers’ score pumps up the psychological-thriller mood, with occasional flights into high-drama Bernard Hermann territory, notably when Virgie does her needlework on Anna’s tender scalp. Fashion nostalgists also will get a kick out of costumer Ceci’s late-’80s outfits, particularly Zora’s linebacker-chic power suits. But despite many deliriously enjoyable sequences, this is thin material, only fitfully funny, messily executed and more silly than scary, which makes it bit of a disappointment.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Midnight)
Production companies: Sight Unseen, in association with Culture Machine
Cast: Elle Lorraine, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, Laverne Cox, Chante Adams, Ashley Blaine Featherson, James Van Der Beek, Michelle Hurd, Yaani King Mondschein, Daheli Hall, Usher Raymond IV, Blair Underwood, Vanessa Williams, Robin Thede, Nicole Byer, Steve Zissis
Director-screenwriter: Justin Simien
Producers: Justin Simien, Julia Lebedev, Angel Lopez, Eddie Vaisman
Executive producers: Leonid Lebedev, Oren Moverman, Alex G. Scott
Director of photography: Topher Osborn
Production designer: Scott Kuzio
Costume designer: Ceci
Music: Kris Bowers
Editors: Phillip J. Bartell, Kelly Matsumoto
Casting: Carmen Cuba
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