A scene from the Justin Simien-directed movie ‘Bad Hair’
The horror-comedy “Bad Hair” goes out to anyone who has had the misfortune of getting their scalp burned after a family member doused the top of their head with lye-filled hair relaxer.
It’s definitely one of the many unfortunate hair moments Justin Simien, the movie’s Houston-born, African-American writer-director, has been through. “I had so many traumatic hair experiences, first of all,” recalls Simien, 37. “I definitely tried to rock the S-Curl situation a few times in middle school and was horrified at the results — and the process of straightening my hair. I’m extremely tender-headed so, like, I tried to get twists once and I had to stop immediately.”
Black hair is a subject that’s near and dear to Simien’s heart. In his 2014 debut feature “Dear White People” (which spun-off a show on Netflix), a young college student (Tyler James Williams) spends the movie rocking a gigantic, unruly Afro that a white, female character can’t help but play with. Of course, that was Simien back in the day. “I had an Afro in college that white people couldn’t keep their fingers out of,” he remembers. “And, eventually, I went bald. So, I can’t say my hair journey has been a walk in the park.”
For his latest film, which begins streaming on Hulu Oct. 23, Simien follows another African-American character who’s having some hair issues. “Hair” has newcomer Elle Lorraine as Anna, a young woman working for a fledgling, Black music-video channel. When the channel gets new management, she’s informed she needs to spruce up her image if she wants to get, um, ahead. Even though she’s got a scar from that time as a kid when her big sister gave her a curl-relaxer treatment, she eventually gets a weave, which turns out to be quite killer — figuratively and literally.
Even though there are some digital effects, Simien says getting that hair to go psycho was a group effort. “Every time you see the hair do something,” he says, “it is based on, you know, a shot where we had hair and puppets and strings and pulleys and levers.”
“Hair” is set in 1989 Los Angeles, which Simien believes was a watershed time for Black folk. It was a time when hip-hop was on-the-rise, new-jack swing started infiltrating the pop-music charts and hair weaves became a popular item among Black women. It was also the year when six-year-old Simien lost his father.
“Honestly,” he says, “it felt really similar to right now, where it’s like, ‘Oh, it’s a Black renaissance. There is Black music and movies and activist voices and all this stuff — isn’t this wonderful?’ But the crazy thing is that, like, five years later, you’re in 1994 or 1995. The same music that used to be called new-jack swing that Janet Jackson and Teddy Riley and Keith Sweat and Guy — all those groups — invented, suddenly that music was called pop music. And Britney Spears was the queen of it and ‘NSync was doing it and it was like we forgot about Jody Watley and Karyn White and Janet Jackson.”
Running time: 115 minutes
Where: Begins streaming Oct. 23 on Hulu
Even though Simien has some good memories from that era, “Hair” basically delves into how African-Americans were being subconsciously led to believe at that time things would go their way if some things were, shall we say, straightened out. “I can look back at 1989 and I have this sense of nostalgia for it,” he says. “Like, the music is great. The fashion is cool. Black people are out here in these streets. But there’s something about it — like there’s a double-edged sword to it, you know. It’s like there’s something about it that we weren’t being really told, that we weren’t really fully let in on at that time. And I think the movie is kind of asking us, ‘OK, well let’s take the things that feel like they’re about celebrating us.. But make sure that we understand what it’s really saying and where it’s really taking us.’ Because this world wasn’t made by us. It wasn’t — and we’re trying to get that power right now. But it wasn’t made with us in mind. It’s not always for us. It’s not always for our benefit.”
Simien rounded up quite the impressive supporting cast: Vanessa Williams, James Van Der Beek, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Laverne Cox, Blair Underwood, Usher, Kelly Rowland, even MC Lyte. They all fell in love with the script, says Simien. “Everyone — James Van Der Beek included, MC Lyte included, Kelly Rowland included — had a personal connection to the story, had a personal reason for telling the story,” he says. “And it felt like, ‘OK, well we’re like in this community of storytellers’ — more so than like, oh, I wanna get this star and that star and that star.”
As Simien gets back to working on the fourth season of “People,” he’s glad he dropped “Hair,” a movie that was mostly inspired by his years growing up in H-Town: living off 288 from the Medical Center, catching the bus, getting hair-care products from that beauty-supply store on Griggs & Milart, etc. “That was the Houston gumbo that made me,” he says. “Like, all the women are named after my mom and her sisters, who I really attribute to falling in love with cinema in the first place.”
Craig Lindsey is a Houston-based writer.
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