Bad Hair: Review
Premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Hulu’s Bad Hair is the latest feature from Dear White People writer/director Justin Simien. Simien’s latest endeavor observes the forceful assimilation of black culture through a distinct horror lens, marking his first foray into genre filmmaking. While there are a few missteps, Simien’s film thankfully finds a balance between thrills and substantive ruminations.
Set in the late 1980s, Bad Hair follows Anna (Elle Lorraine), a TV executive for a freshly-developed hip-hop network. Despite her tireless work ethic, Anna never receives the promotion she deserves, leading to her acquiring a weave to fit into her corporate world. Her new hairstyle impresses her peers, but it proves to have a mind of its own when it starts to attack people.
Similar to Dear White People, Simien mindfully works to construct equally thoughtful and relevant social dynamics. The high-concept premise works not only as an inventive horror showcase, but also as a potent avenue of deconstructing America’s degradation of the natural black image. From jump street, Anna is consistently ostracized by higher executives for her nappy appearance, forcing her to embrace a superficial reality that ultimately masks her identity. The portrayal of forced compliance is enhanced by Elle Lorraine’s assured lead performance, with the Insecure star tapping into the insecurity and muted pain that this decision brings.
This foundation breeds promising opportunities for Simien to juxtapose the character’s inner-turmoil with visceral horror elements. As a director, he imbues some inspired craftsmanship choices that aptly harken to genre B-movies of yesteryear. Cinematographer Topher Osborn’s grainy aesthetic captures its finite late-80s period soundly, making a fitting canvas for Simien to unleash some campy, over-the-top setpieces that properly utilize the concept (his use of intense close-ups and cheeky practical effects are often quite fun). It could have been easy for this film to lose its tonal axis, but the different identities mesh with enough thought and balance to co-exist properly. Supporting performances from Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, and Vanessa Williams also bring the entertainment factor, with Williams shinning as a deliciously-stern villain.
Bad Hair is always earnest, though some of the execution choices lack dramatic grace. Simien’s screenplay occasionally handles its vital conceits with clumsy heavy-handedness, implementing dialogue that lacks authenticity and nuance (similar to Dear White People, some lines read as overt ciphers for the screenwriter). I also wished the film’s second half bolstered more narrative ingenuity, rarely packing the kind of surprises that make horror films truly stand out.
Still, Bad Hair’s imperfect form never masks its innate pleasures. Justin Simien’s latest offers a satisfying blend between thought and thrills, leaving me excited to see what the writer/director dreams up next.