Justin Simien Talks ‘Bad Hair,’ Seeing His First Horror Movie and New Jack Swing

Listen to the first episode of Variety's new Awards Circuit Podcast below

Justin Simien Variety Creative Impact Honoree
Shayan Asgharnia for Variety

Writer-director Justin Simien remembers how he was far too young when he saw his first-ever horror movie, “A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge.”

It was his aunt who shared her love for movies — not just of horror, but all genres — with a young Simien. He recalls picking up on the movie’s “gay subtext.” “The supposedly, subtextual one…I watched it at a very inappropriate age and had no idea conceptually what was even happening in the movie, but I loved Freddy Krueger,” he tells Variety’s new Awards Circuit Podcast.

Simien, who wrote and directed the “Dear White People” film and series, transitions to horror with Hulu’s “Bad Hair,” which is now streaming on the service. Set in 1989 at the height of the popularity of new jack swing music, the film follows Anna (Elle Lorraine), an assistant who aspires to star in her own show at a music TV station. When Vanessa Williams enters as Anna’s new boss, she orders Anna to wear a weave. The weave Anna acquires possesses a life of its own — and starts to take over the lives of women working at the station.

Inspired by the Korean horror film, “The Wig,” Simien said that he wanted to tackle the issues with hair that Black women face. He never imagined he would be doing horror and now admits, “I was a little mad” for not having explored the genre earlier.

“Hair has been a horror motif in my life,” Simien says. “I was raised by women and I’m very familiar with what hair is to Black women — again, that’s a source of horror and pride. I thought I could say something in the same way that ‘The Stepford Wives’ or ‘Invasion of the Bodysnatchers’ says something.”

The film also looks at late 1980s music video culture. As part of his research, Simien did a deep dive into Black music from the era.

“So much of that music didn’t even chart on the pop charts, which is a surprise to me,” he says. “I just listened to Black music when I was young. In 1989, they had the Black charts, and everything was so segregated.”

As he was developing the script, Simien says he considered using everything from Janet Jackson to Jody Watley, but in listening to the lyrics, he realized he could do a social commentary on the lyrics themselves. “If you listen to the lyrics, there’s a lot of messed-up stuff,” he laughs.

Listen to the new Variety Awards Circuit podcast, which also includes a conversation with Rashida Jones, and Variety’s awards roundtable, below:

Variety‘s Awards Circuit podcast, hosted by Clayton Davis, Jenelle Riley, Jazz Tangcay and Michael Schneider (who produces), is your one-stop listen for lively conversations about the best in film and television. Each week Awards Circuit features interviews with top film and TV talent and creatives; discussions and debates about awards races and industry headlines; and much more. Subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or anywhere you download podcasts. New episodes post every Thursday.