The year is 1989 and New Jack Swing is about to push black culture from the margins to the mainstream. The question for the black employees of Culture, the music TV station at the center of writer-director Justin Simien’s delightfully macabre horror-dramedy “Bad Hair,” is what image do they — and their white executive Grant (James Van Der Beek) — want to promote? Accuses one host, “You want us to appeal to a whiter — er, wider — audience.”
Before you can say Bel Biv Devoe, our heroine Anna (newcomer Elle Lorraine), an assistant who aspires to star in her own show, finds her braided boss pushed out and replaced by sleek ex-supermodel Zora (Vanessa Williams), who scowls at Anna’s short, natural curls and orders her to get a weave. And so ambitious Anna stitches her scalp with a stranger’s long, straight hair which, to her despair, literally slays.
In “Bad Hair,” beauty standards bring pain. Anna’s hair is a battleground. After an opening scene of a preteen hair-straightening gone wrong, she refuses to let it be touched. Combs, needles, scissors are obvious threats. (Sound designer Jon Michaels makes the attack of brush-against-scalp recall a lion ripping open a lamb.) The subtle violence is more sinister: the way pre-makeover Anna is ignored by men, passed over for promotions and isolated from her community, as she’s unwilling to enter the salons where women spend hours twisting, braiding and bonding.
Lorraine plays Anna as timid and hunched, a wallflower who rarely gets to flash her dynamite smile. She makes the audience want to protect her on sight. Yet, her on-again, off-again ex, a callous host with a formidable flattop (“Saturday Night Live’s” Jay Pharoah), hints that Anna has a dominant side she keeps tucked away in a drawer of bondage gear.
Hair, however, turns out to make a wicked weapon itself. To Simien, the tossing of lock over shoulder is as threatening as flipping open a switchblade. When Anna cedes control to her weave, the tendrils slither, suck blood from wounds, and coil into a noose. In one scene, the strands slide through a locked door as easily as the liquid-metal T-1000 walked through cell bars in “Terminator 2” Judging from the Cameron-esque thrums that suddenly barge into composer Kris Bowers’ playful score, he seems to have made the connection, plus others including Bernard Hermman’s “Psycho” strings and the airy, ethereal melodies of ’70s spooktaculars.
Simien, detouring from his heralded work as the creator of the hit film and TV show “Dear White People,” is clearly delighted to play with his genre influences, whether directing his own pitch-perfect music videos within the movie that send up Janet Jackson and Another Bad Creation, or processing the film to look like a grainy VHS tape from an alternate dimension where the biggest star is a luscious-haired diva named Sandra (singer Kelly Rowland). Costume designer Ceci’s ensembles and Scott Kuzio’s production design are spot-on. Just as impressive is Simien’s steady handle on his serio-comic tone, at once sly, resonant, and horrific.
Simien’s also enlisted great supporting players. Williams is a hoot, as is Laverne Cox’s fully-booked stylist, Lena Waithe’s disgruntled co-worker, and Usher’s hustling producer, plus a quick cameo from hip hop legend MC Lyte.
Despite the jump scares, Simien is serious about his message. He wants to be clear that he feels black women have been subjected to centuries of cultural oppression aimed at convincing them that their natural hair is a flaw. Even if Anna hadn’t sewn on a deadly weave, she was still pressured to spend her rent money on a superficiality, or face a barrier to her success. Searching to understand her curse in a book of folktales dating back to slavery, she realizes that her people’s stories are incomplete. “You subjugate people by telling them their science is superstition,” warns her uncle (Blair Underwood), an expert in African American history. Losing your roots — or, rather, hiding them under someone else’s — is, as he sighs, just “one of the ways they make you an accomplice to your own murder. “