Deeply personal but indulgently campy, Justin Simien’s Sundance opener “Bad Hair” is a genre-blending horror show that the director said serves as a tribute to the struggles of black women.
The mind behind “Dear White People” staged the world premiere for the project at Park City’s Ray Theater on Thursday night, before a cast that included newcomer and lead Elle Lorraine, Lena Waithe, and Kelly Rowland.
“I made this movie with one group in mind — black women,” Simien said, adding that he hoped to “interrogate a system obsessed with black culture, but one that doesn’t give a s— about black lives.”
Lorraine plays Anna, a hopeful on-air host stuck at the assistant level at a stagnating cable network in 1989. The channel’s programming skews authentically African American, until an evil white executive (James Van Der Beek) sees the pending hip-hip revolution about to saturate pop culture and shakes things up. Anna, stricken with a devastating scar from an encounter with drug store hair relaxer as a child, finds she cannot climb the ladder without assuming the aesthetic that the period requires of her.
Caving to peer pressure, she submits to getting a weave — sewn in hair pieces that would become a beauty standard in the ’90s. The benefits are immediate, but Anna soon realizes her new hair comes at a deadly price.
Simien spoke of his mother and late aunts, and said he’s found patterns over his entire life of society “mining” black women for their passion and wisdom, but never elevating them to positions of power.
Conceived over a long weekend in Palm Springs with his producers, Simien said he also wanted to explore “a genre that I love,” and was particularly inspired by the skin-crawling horror of South Korea.
“There’s a sub-genre of Korean horror films, hair horror, and there’s no American equivalent,” he said. “I thought about ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ ‘Wicker Man’ and absurd traditions of horror and camp.”
Waithe spoke briefly about her excitement to participate in a highly popular film tradition that was cast with and aimed specifically at black women.
“When we watch it, we feel like it’s for us. If no one else gets it, who gives a s—?” she said.
Simien burst into national recognition following his 2014 feature “Dear White People,” which was later adapted into a Netflix Original series. “Bad Hair” is currently seeking a domestic distributor, with Endeavor Content repping filmmakers in the sale.