Any teacher sick of hearing the question, “When am I going to use that?” should appreciate the story of how hairstylist Lawrence Davis and his team pulled off the meticulously detailed 1920s looks for HBO’s “Bessie.”
“The basics from hair school, the basics from hair school,” repeats Davis, the hair department head for Queen Latifah’s star vehicle about blues legend Bessie Smith. “I think about it and I smile because it’s what I had to do every day (in school) and how much I hated it.”
Specifically, Davis says, since the time period meant there were “no chemical processing to straighten out African-American hair” as there is today, “a lot of that was done thermally with hot irons.”
“We hot-ironed onto people’s heads and we had natural hair wigs that were perfect replicas of African-American hair. We used hot irons as well as rollers. Once the irons were warmed up, we would curl the hair into a figure-eight pattern. Once that was set into place, we’d brush it out lightly to have the waves and sculpt them. It’s in the textbooks (in cosmetology school). I love it because it’s totally, totally important to know the basics to get what we have today.”
Given the unusual demands of the film’s period setting, the project required wardrobe and hair departments to have a symbiotic relationship.
Hats were a crucial part of a woman’s wardrobe at the time, Davis says. “There was something about that era that made it appropriate to have the hair pinned up instead of down and to have the hair hit just below the neckline so the ear was just the perfect silhouette for some of the skullcaps that the women wore.”
But at night?
“Headbands and features and things of that nature; when it came to performing, the more elaborate the better,” he says.
While Latifah’s Bessie mostly wears her hair short with only a flash of a headband or accessory, Davis says it was particularly true for Mo’Nique’s unflappable character, Ma Rainey.
“Ma Rainey had a style of her own, kind of a wilder side,” Davis says. “When we had her at home, she was pretty reserved and her hair would be close to the head and out of the way. (On stage) she was more of a headband woman. She did set herself apart from the other women back then. Her hair was basically undone in a done way.”
Hairstyling for the male co-stars was more uniform, Davis says. Most used a tapered haircut and “a bit of pomade to do a side or center part.”
“It was all about the shape of the hair back then. Of course they wore a lot of hats, but when the hat came off the hair was in an almost perfect state because the hair fit perfectly underneath,” he says, adding that Jeremie Harris (who plays Langston Hughes) ended up wearing a wig that was custom-made for another actor but fit him so well that “we put the wig on and cut the hair as it if were his hair.”
Davis threw himself into researching the period looks from the minute executive producer Shelby Stone called him about the job. He says it was important to capture the memories of these beloved performers and not resort to stereotypes.
He also credits director Dee Rees for putting him at ease early on by reminding him that authenticity is better than re-created perfection. For Davis, that meant tempering his instincts to groom and polish beyond everyday relatability.
“She definitely wanted the kinky edges. Even if their hair was pressed out to be straight, it was definitely more authentic to have those edges than to be silky straight,” he says. “Compared to other movies that I’ve looked at that (take place) in that era, I feel like my kinky edges kind of set me apart. It was more authentic.”