You always have a choice.
It’s 1989 and Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine) still hasn’t straightened her hair thanks to an ill-fated attempt years previously that left her scalp scarred and sensitive to the touch. She asked her cousin Linda (Chanté Adams) to do it then because her idols all had sleek, shoulder length locks and she knew it would give her a leg up on a career path towards DJ/VJ stardom even before landing a job at the urban arm of RMV known as Culture. As an interviewer tells her at the start of Justin Simien‘s horror-comedy Bad Hair, however, her image was too “urban” for their tastes. They, like Culture, were about the bottom-line. That meant selling Black style to white audiences rather than a Black demographic in desperate need of empowerment.
If you think making a hairstyle block someone’s career advancement is ludicrous, you haven’t been paying attention. Black women have been dealing with prejudice against natural hair forever. It’s real and it’s destructive and it’s the reason why some have gone against their instincts to assimilate to a prevailingly racist notion of beauty in order to survive. In the case of Anna against a backdrop of a decade of self-indulgence and materialism, the prospect of a weave has become a popular if expensive means towards giving the white executive brass exactly what they crave. So she takes her new boss’ (Vanessa Williams‘ Zora) challenge to be “one of her girls” to heart and pays local hairstyling legend Virgie (Laverne Cox) to make it happen despite the excruciating pain.
Can you blame her for crossing the line towards appropriation when she’s languished for four years with an assistant’s title while those around her got promoted—sometimes to take the very jobs that her valuable ideas created? When RMV corporate brings Grant Madison (James Van Der Beek) in to replace Culture head Edna (Judith Scott) with Zora and supply an ultimatum where new content is concerned, Anna doesn’t really have a choice. Her ideas are still good enough to be stolen and her “image” is still unsuitable for the brand. If a five hundred dollar weave can help elevate the latter to the former’s level in RMV’s eyes, why not drink the Kool-Aid? Sometimes you must play the game to accrue the power necessary to rewrite the rules.
The first half of Bad Hair is therefore pretty effective in setting up Anna’s motivations. Her plight is lightened up with exasperation to counter-act the darkness bubbling beneath the surface courtesy of her uncle Amos’ (Blair Underwood) Slave Lore ruminations about a “Moss-haired Girl” and Zora’s hair going full Medusa around her shoulders. Frustrations are rising with Anna’s VJ boyfriend Julius (Jay Pharoah) dumping her for another woman, her VJ friends Sista Soul (Yaani King Mondschein) and Brook-Lynne (Lena Waithe) turning on her for cozying up to the new boss, and a landlord threatening her with eviction after hiking the rent to capitalize on gentrification. Suddenly work becomes all she has with her new hair proving the secret weapon she’s always been missing … until its bloodlust appears.
Yes. I mean the hair’s bloodlust. Something is amiss as it gets unwieldy unless its roots find some plasma to slurp: cuts or otherwise (that’s right, no tampons needed). Simien is still wholeheartedly embracing the horror element of his story at this point and that’s good because the nightmare of Anna being helpless to the whims of her weave is an intriguing concept. Bodies drop, eye color changes, and Culture’s rebrand to Cult carries an almost one hundred percent shift in homogenized beauty style on the back of the chart’s number one artist Sandra (Kelly Rowland). Add some necessary speculation and fear to fall down the rabbit hole of what’s really happening and things end up suitably creepy. But that’s when Simien’s grasp on the material falls apart.
This fact has ruined the whole for a lot of people. While I don’t think the sudden shift towards absurd humor is quite so damning on its own, however, it is one of many missteps made. So while it does reveal just how scattershot the tone has been from the beginning, things do remain entertaining. That includes the shoddy, big-scale special effects that must be leaned into comically so as not to fall apart completely. Simien has some good ideas too where it comes to subverting expectations of who is in on the carnage and who’s a victim with everyone more or less being fair game to get killed, but he fails to realize the fact that he set-up so many subplots with possible avenues towards greater intrigue.
Anna never revisits Virgie. Amos pausing on the “Moss-haired Girl” before closing his book doesn’t manifest as him knowing more than he initially says. And Sandra’s assistant Germane D.’s (Usher) anxiety about what’s happening around him doesn’t go further than a throwaway exchange. Simien is dropping breadcrumbs that ultimately lead nowhere en route to a rather boring climax positioning a sort of “boss fight” with the supernatural above the numerous psychological pathways he could have gone to give life to his commentary rather than simply use it to deliver familiar scares. He’s just never able to marry his satirical impulses with the desire to homage slasher flicks so that they may exist simultaneously. The resulting discord leaves most of his best inclinations flapping in the wind.
It’s not a total loss, though. I really like the nightmare sequences positioning Anna’s family in traditional African wardrobe to imply an ancestral basis to the evil in play. I really like Lorraine’s performance in the lead too in large part because her character is allowed nuance that those around her aren’t once they become almost drone-like in their machinations post-weave. I would have liked a bit more insight into that disparity considering Anna is first to assimilate and last to fully succumb, but that’s pretty much my problem with the whole. Everything that captured my attention falls prey to the blunt force trauma of horror tropes. Similar to Anna being disregarded because of appearances, the film’s intellectual drive is sadly consumed by its superficial, mainstream genre façade.
 Anna (Elle Lorraine), shown. (Photo by: Tobin Yellan/Hulu)
 Sistah Soul (Yaani King Mondschein), Annie (Elle Lorraine) and Brook-Lynne (Lena Waithe), shown. (Photo by: Tobin Yellan/Hulu)
 Anna (Elle Lorraine) and Virgie (Laverne Cox), shown. (Photo by: Tobin Yellan/Hulu)