In Bad Hair, now streaming on Hulu, the year is 1989, and Anna (Elle Lorraine) works at Culture, an “urban” TV network. She’s got big dreams but has spent several years on the bottom rung of the ladder, trying and failing to gain upward momentum. Relatively soft-spoken and not a natural self-promoter, her ambitions are further curbed by a lethal combination of racism and sexism from work superiors male and female, Black and white alike. “Why would they get rid of you? You barely cost the network anything,” a coworker snarks when Anna expresses concerns regarding layoff rumors.
When #girlboss prototype Zora (Vanessa Williams) shows up to re-vamp the Culture brand, flaunting a silky straight weave that looks just like the one Anna’s favorite pop idol Sandra (Kelly Rowland) recently started sporting, Anna decides to put aside her commitment to her natural 4C curls in the name of career prospects. Still bearing physical scars on her scalp from a childhood encounter with hair relaxers, Anna heads to the most expensive and exclusive stylist in town, Virgie (Laverne Cox—a joy to see even under terrible circumstances), who manages to squeeze Anna into her schedule after some significant begging and pleading on Anna’s part. Unfortunately, Anna’s new look proves to be a Faustian bargain in the vein of The Hands of Orlac—that is, her new hair has a will of its own, and it’s a pretty bloodthirsty one.
Bad Hair is a film that serves as an important reminder of the importance of intersectionality in the sense that it makes it painfully obvious that no, being a Black man does not automatically mean you are fully qualified and capable of tackling a tale of Black womanhood. It lacks the insight or the wit to make good satire and the scares to make good horror, not so bad as to be terrifying so much as lame. It’s the sort of film where it doesn’t feel right to judge the performances because the characterizations are so flat and the pacing so off that it doesn’t feel right to ascribe blame for the fact their performances really don’t work. Overall, it’s a deeply underwhelming sophomore effort from Justin Simien (Dear White People) and a boring slog of a movie not worth your time.
It’s the sort of film clearly intended to speak to Black women specifically that also, in deeply annoying ways, tends to speak over them—their agency, their choices, the idea that Black women might ever do something with their hair and image for reasons besides giving into the oppressive forces of white patriarchy. A poorly executed attempt to bring in fake Black folklore (“the moss-haired girl,” which is actually a real, very different, historical thing) serves as a good specific example of a widespread issue in this movie—it takes itself too seriously to let itself be enjoyably silly, but also lacks the nuance to feel especially insightful or engaging as a commentary on the real world. Look, I noticed this pattern, the film seems to say, not taking the crucial additional step of actually having something funny and/or thought-provoking to say regarding said trend.
The thing about comedy is that you either need someone to laugh with or laugh at. Poor Anna is hardly a fount of wit, and too earnest and empathetic to truly laugh at. Bad Hair feels like the sort of film that was greenlit off of the longline alone because the basic premise has potential. The script, unfortunately, is such an overall dud it’s not worth it to get into the specifics of what doesn’t work because the issue is more or less everything. The pacing is slow, the dialogue is clunky, the further along it gets the more the whole thing falls apart. On a technical level, the visuals are often on point—the production design is a lot of fun and the cinematography’s pretty neat—and if you take a bottom-up approach to individual details there are clearly a lot of people involved in this production who know how to do their jobs very well. But if you take a top-down, holistic approach to the whole thing… let me just say yikes and leave it at that.
Entertainment does not require a coherent moral or social justice argument to be good or watchable, but Bad Hair is one of that painful breed that is clearly trying to preach from a soapbox but struggles because it’s hard to ennunciate properly when one has one’s entire foot shoved in one’s mouth. If you want to be schlocky fun, be schlocky fun; if you’re going to try to have A Message make sure you have something more to say than “weaves are bad.”
While the film is literally all about Black hair and internalized racism in attitudes towards natural hair, it’s weirdly quiet about a lot of the other dynamics going along with that, most noticeably colorism. It’s very clearly there—Zora’s a paper bag test pass while Anna’s dark-skinned, for instance—but Bad Hair does basically nothing with this. Where Simien chooses to apply scrutiny feels uneven at best and downright lazy at worst.
Ultimately, Bad Hair is like Hollywood Shuffle if Hollywood Shuffle was entirely unfunny and had some gore in it. In other words, you needn’t waste your time.