You’ve never had a bad hair day quite like Anna Bludso, the ambitious protagonist of writer/director Justin Simien‘s sophomore feature Bad Hair. Newcomer Elle Lorraine delivers a breakout performance as Anna, who dreams of becoming an on-air host at Culture, a TV channel that plays R&B music videos.
Anna has been toiling away as an executive assistant for the past four years when her boss and mentor (Judith Scott) decides to leave Culture. A new boss is brought in, and Anna, like many of her co-workers, fears for her job, especially since she’s already behind on her skyrocketing LA rent. But this new boss isn’t like the old boss. Instead, Zora (a pitch-perfect Vanessa Williams) is a former supermodel who isn’t afraid to shake up the status quo at Culture. She sees something in Anna and begins to take the young woman under her wing. But if Anna is going to thrive in the cutthroat, image-obsessed world of music television in the late ’80s, she’s going to have to do something about her natural hair first.
This is the part of the review that gets a little tricky for me, a white guy. I’m probably the last person who should be talking about black women’s hair care, which is clearly a very important and sensitive subject — one that I’ll admit I have limited understanding of. In the case of Anna’s hair, she suffered a painful accident to her scalp as a young girl, and her hair is short and nappy, whereas Zora’s is long and straight. Zora attracts men half her age, while Anna’s hair earns her cold stares in the lobby. Thus, Zora’s assistant sends Anna to a world-renowned salon run by Virgie (Laverne Cox), who will give her a very special weave known as ‘the Sandra,’ named after a major R&B star (Kelly Rowland) who epitomizes beauty and success.
The weave is expensive, and Anna can’t afford it, but she also can’t afford not to get it. After all, a million girls would kill to be a TV personality. So she goes through with it, Virgie’s needle digging through her tender scalp, and the transformation is truly startling. All of a sudden, men and women alike are doing double-takes when Anna walks by. But this is a horror movie, so be careful what you wish for. It’s not long before Anna realizes that her killer new weave has a mind of its own — and a thirst for blood.
That means Simien needs a handful of potential victims, and the supporting cast surrounding Lorraine and Williams is more than game. Jay Pharoah plays a womanizing VJ caught between the two women, while Lena Waithe and Yaani King Mondschein both shine as Anna’s colleagues. Meanwhile, Usher Raymond has a small role as Sandra’s hubby, Blair Underwood plays Anna’s uncle, who has great respect for black folklore, James Van Der Beek plays Zora’s slick boss, and a creepy Steve Zissis (Togetherness) plays Anna’s pushy landlord. Lorraine is the star here though, and she dazzles in the role. Seriously, this is a genre performance that’s right up there with Lupita Nyong’o‘s recent turn in Us. And speaking of Jordan Peele, Bad Hair does, at times, feel like a companion piece to Get Out, in that there’s a ‘body snatchers’ element to its B-movie plot, albeit one that isn’t handled quite as well.
The question is, does Bad Hair work overall? And the answer is yes, for the most part — and on multiple levels, no less. There are some laugh-out-loud moments, and even though I wouldn’t call this film “scary,” there are definitely some fun scares as the weave’s bloodlust grows. But what really impressed me about the film was everything Simien says about black women and the sacrifices they’re often forced to make for their careers. This is a film about Culture being stripped down and replaced by (a) Cult. It is as much a horror movie as it is an examination of a black workplace. We don’t often get to see black women calling the shots, or asserting themselves in meetings, or questioning their professional circumstances, and I wonder if it’s these sharp observations that Bad Hair will ultimately be remembered for. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard to forget a movie about a killer weave, but I bet a lot of people, regardless of skin color, will appreciate the concerns and grievances that Simien addresses here, which mainstream movies are rarely interested in exploring.
The problem with Bad Hair is that it could use a bit of a haircut, pardon the pun. It’s a good 10-15 minutes too long, and featured one-too-many endings for my liking, as Simien gets caught over-explaining things. This is a movie about a killer weave, and not everything needs to be tied in a nice little bow. Simien probably should’ve ended things a bit earlier, but it’s not like the movie wears out its welcome. The ‘body snatchers’ element I referred to earlier just worked better when I noticed it on my own, rather than when Simien puts too much emphasis on it in the final reel, introducing an unnecessary last-minute twist of sorts.
I respected Simien’s directorial debut Dear White People more than I really enjoyed it, but I think it’s clear that he has grown as a filmmaker. There’s more subtlety and thematic maturity to his work here, and its messages are less in-your-face. That’s why I suspect this film is going to develop a cult following, particularly among women of color, who will surely be able to relate to Anna and her colleagues, both in terms of hair care and the difficult of climbing the corporate ladder. With the right marketing campaign, a little trim off its running time, and maybe a few extra bucks spent on visual effects, Bad Hair could find a solid audience. I could even see it spawning a ’90s-set sequel. Just lather, rinse and repeat.
For more of our Sundance 2020 reviews, see below: