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The Hair Tales, streaming on Hulu and OWN in collaboration with Disney’s Onyx Collective, quilts together the varied relationships Black women have with their hair, celebrating the collective experiences they share.
Fittingly, it was produced by Culture House, a Black and brown woman-owned production company focused on storytelling for film and television with particular political or cultural resonance.
The six-episode docuseries, executive produced by Oprah Winfrey, Tracee Ellis Ross and Michaela Angela Davis, centers and celebrates six different Black women — Issa Rae, Rep. Ayanna Pressley, CHIKA, Marsai Martin, Chloe Bailey and Oprah Winfrey — by exploring their unique yet similar understandings of beauty and identity through their hair. Ross also serves as host and is joined by a chorus of academics, hairdressers and cultural icons.
“We really wanted to express the fullness and the expansiveness of our identities — all the different ways that we wear our hair, all the different skin tones, all the pieces of who we are,” Ross tells THR. “This was an intentional series where we [set out] to contextualize our experience not only through the stories that we tell each other but also by bringing in scholars and allowing them to give genuine historical context to so much of the experiences that we have.”
Co-founded by Raeshem Nijhon, Carri Twigg and Nicole Galovski in 2018, Culture House’s involvement underscores the importance of this by-and-for storytelling approach.
“Raeshem Nijhon, my other business partner, talks a lot about our content supply chain: Who makes the story is as important as the story that you’re actually telling,” Twigg says of Culture House’s mission. “We had Black women not only at the helm of the project and in front of the camera but on every level and in every single department. And that is not just something that is unique to [Hair Tales], but is how Culture House believes content can and should be made.”
Though Michaela Angela Davis had long been studying Black hair and implications surrounding cultural aesthetic beauty (“she has had a practice around exploring Black women and our hair as a vector for our collectivity, our community, our sisterhood, our artistry, as well as our history,” Twigg says), she teamed up with Tara Duncan, president of Freeform and Onyx Collective, to bring the show concept to Culture House.
“I was thrilled to have an opportunity to explore the world of our hair as Black women through a high art, high production value lens,” says Twigg. “As a Black woman, I knew kind of instantly that this was ripe for so much exploration and that there is both specificity and commonality but also we each have our own unique experiences.”
The team pitched it to Ross, who evolved the idea and helped shape the final thesis, which Twigg says is that “you can trace a Black woman’s journey of self-acceptance alongside her journey with her hair.”
The six-episode TV series got the official green light in May 2020.
“Part of what is unique about the show is that both OWN and Hulu bought it,” Twigg says. “So they were partnering for the first time together to do a simulcast situation, where it would be on both OWN and Hulu — they did not have a pre-existing relationship, which is spectacular.”
The team pitched the show to several different people but Oprah Winfrey, an executive producer and guest on the show, “got it immediately,” Ross says. “[With her], no emotional cash had to be spent in order to explain why this is an important story and worth telling. So we got to get down to the business of creating and creating something beautiful.”
Hair is often dismissed as a superficial concern, and the preciousness of Black hair is made more complicated by the fact that many view the tangled kinks of its history in society too difficult to straighten out. But on either side of the ledger, Black hair is under scrutiny, wrapped up in judgment and discomfort. Chemical perms and hot comb presses have long been (mis)understood as a form of assimilation — as a bowing to Eurocentric beauty standards.
Conversely, more Afrocentric hairstyles like afros, dreadlocks and cornrows have been met with discrimination, oftentimes in schools and the workplace. (California’s Crown Act, which prohibits discrimination based on hairstyle and hair texture by extending protection under the FEHA and the California Education Code is the first legislation of its kind passed by a U.S. state and was signed into law on July 3, 2019.)
“There is real genuine scholarship to the artistry, the history, the legacies, the cultural significance of our hair, and it is important to understand what some of the deeper meanings are between certain patterns and trends,” Twigg says. “There’s a whole science and academy there and we wanted to honor that too.”
Ross’ commitment to Black hair extends beyond this show; her natural haircare brand, Pattern Beauty, focuses on curly, coily and tight textured hair.
“My mission as Tracee is to join the chorus of people that are helping to make our world a safer place where we all can be free. And then I have a particular mission towards Black women and girls — it is so important to me that [Pattern] is an active space centered around the celebration of Black beauty, and that’s where Hair Tales just merges right in,” Ross says.
“This is a story that is urgent at every moment. It is a love letter to black women. And it is an intentional and intimate discovery of the humanity of Black women told through the metaphor of our hair,” she continues. “I feel like our hair is a portal into our souls. And the thing that feels particularly important now is that the experience of Black women is often told through struggle, hardship, and difficulty, which is part of the experience. But our humanity is also filled with joy, celebration and beauty.”
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