The truest statement anyone can make about Justin Simien’s horror-comedy Bad Hair is that it’s very much a Justin Simien movie. Like his breakout feature debut, Dear White People, and the Netflix TV series he wound up spinning the film into, Bad Hair unpacks Black American identities through social and cultural lenses, mixing straight-faced character studies with sharp banter and humor. Unlike Dear White People, Bad Hair has issues balancing the two in tandem with the horror side of the scales, and often finds itself thrown out of equilibrium in the final measurement. Simien’s work is funny, and spooky, but never both together.
Comedy and horror historically go together well. Genre film, particularly the grotesque, straddles a fine line, and the grotesque has a way of tipping easily into comedy. In Bad Hair the two share a split-custody agreement: They visit the viewer only in every other scene. Most of the heavy lifting needed to connect the two falls on the shoulders of Simien’s lead, Elle Lorraine, playing TV studio assistant Anna Bludso. Anna works at a music video station called Culture, a BET riff, struggling to get noticed and constantly overlooked for advancement as she juggles a relationship with Julius (Jay Pharoah), the channel’s scumbag VJ. When the new boss, Zora (Vanessa Williams), replaces her old boss and mentor, Edna (Judith Scott), she is immediately advised to fix up her hair.
So Anna gives in to pressure and her desire for upward moment and pays a visit to Virgie (Laverne Cox) at her high-end salon, where she has a weave sewn directly into her fucking head. Before long, the weave begins to crave human blood—any source will do.
Simien’s central metaphor blends nicely with the B-movie camp he evokes through his filmmaking. American women must trod on each other and throw elbows to climb the ladder in business: As Anna’s hunger for plasma grows, so too does her reputation at Culture, though at the cost of her relationships with her coworkers and friends. The metaphor extends to Black American womanhood, too, the weave being treated as a tool for attaining success, a status symbol, and proof of the agony Black women have to put themselves through for society, culture and, yes, Culture to acknowledge their beauty, much less their humanity. Empathy shines through Simien’s lens, manned by cinematographer Topher Osborn: The film’s deep sense of the pain Anna suffers grows as Bad Hair’s purview expands to include slave folklore as its foundation. On the genre side, the image of hair writhing and slithering like Medusa’s reptilian coils is striking, absurdist on the same level as Peter Strickland’s In Fabric but in the end not as seamless.
Bad Hair suffers from Too Much Movie syndrome. What Simien could have accomplished in 80 minutes he tries to spread out over nearly 115. Almost all of those minutes feature Lorraine, the film’s reactive element, spending each scene she’s in just trying to breathe and then turning inhales into screams. Anna just wants to see her ideas respected and brought to fruition. Instead, she’s stuck with an evil living mass of hair on her noggin, and her trendsetting winds up bleeding over into the rest of the office. She couldn’t catch a break before her sew-in appointment, and now she can’t stop the body count from rising. Lorraine turns what’s ridiculous on its face about Bad Hair into human drama, but Simien is less successful in joining together his influences and aesthetics—hip hop, ’80s horror, grime and commentary—into a harmonious whole. Bad Hair isn’t a bad movie. Few of 2020’s horror pictures are, for better or for worse, this memorable. But in the end, Simien’s execution doesn’t match his ambitions.
Director: Justin Simien
Writer: Justin Simien
Starring: Elle Lorraine, Vanessa Williams, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Laverne Cox, Judith Scott, Robin Thede, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Michelle Hurd, Blair Underwood, James Van Der Beek, Kelly Rowland, Steve Zissis
Release Date: October 23, 2020
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.