Many of us who have tried to dye, bleach, relax or chemically treat our hair at home may relate to the anxiety in the first scene of Justin Simien’s follow-up to “Dear White People,” “Bad Hair.” An older cousin tries to help her younger cousin relax her hair for the first time, but the little girl begins to complain that the product is burning her.
Like many first-time attempts, the experiment doesn’t go well, but this is just the start of many hair-related frights to come in the film, which had its world premiere on Thursday, the opening night of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
After that initial scene, the film jumps ahead to 1989 Los Angeles. The little girl, Anna (Elle Lorraine), is now an aspiring TV producer in an industry that’s ruthless on black women and their hair. Under new management led by a former model, Zora (Vanessa Williams), Anna’s natural curls are no longer acceptable, and she’s pressured to try a new fashion trend to get straight hair: a weave. She endures the painful procedure to have straight strands of hair sewn in for the sake of her career, but the hair – and what it represents – is not what it seems.
Lorraine is the movie’s breakout star. She’s riveting to watch as she plays her ambitious character forced to solve the unexplained mysteries of her sentient weave. She’s joined by an equally entertaining cast filled with famous faces like Williams, Lena Waithe, Laverne Cox, Kelly Rowland, Jay Pharoah, MC Lyte and Usher, to name a few.
“Bad Hair” is shot on film in a way that captures the movie’s throwback look and allows Simien and his cinematographer Topher Osborn to play with color and lighting. The night scenes practically sparkle from blue moonlight, yet dark alleyways and overpasses look even more foreboding with less light. In some scenes, colorful neon signs and lighting fixtures heighten the intensity of the moment.
There’s one particularly striking scene of two actors in mid-kiss backlit with a bright blue light, and carefully composed moments like this add to the film’s suspense – things can’t be this pretty all the time in a horror movie.
Costume designer Ceci also deserves a round of applause for recreating the vivid fashions from the start of her career in the late 80s and early 90s. The gamut of costumes range from professional office wear at the TV channel to casual clothes when visiting family to the fashionable excesses of performers and TV personalities. Many of Ceci’s ensembles also tell a nuanced story of cultural identity and class.
Simien dives into his love of horror movies and peppers references to some of his favorites throughout “Bad Hair.” For instance, there’s a split diopter shot as an homage to Brian De Palma’s “Body Double,” an axe that harkens back to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” and many other allusions to such movies as “Carrie,” “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
“Bad Hair” references itself often, repeating scenes and clues to the story in flashbacks, which can sometimes get in the way of its own momentum. The movie is front-loaded with exposition, but once the action gets going and the narrative pieces fall into place, “Bad Hair” is a creepy movie with thoughtful political twists and thrilling supernatural turns.