Justin Simien’s new film “Bad Hair” attempts a spooky mix of cultural horror and satire, and I was sort of amused by that despite my remaining dissatisfaction with the overall result. Although it is not wholly successful due to its rather incoherent storytelling, the movie makes some sharp points on gender and race during its first half, and that is the main reason why I wish it could delve further into its eerie premise instead of resorting to a series of insipid genre clichés during its jumbled second half.
After the opening scene which feels sweet but then becomes more disturbing than expected, the movie introduces us to a young African American woman named Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), who works as an aspiring assistant in some big music cable TV company in LA, 1989. When she begins another day at her workplace, Anna is belatedly notified that her immediate superior is going to leave due to some creative disagreement with the owner of the company, and she is not so pleased at all as seeing a former supermodel named Zora Choice (Vanessa Williams) becoming her new immediate superior. Zora is quite determined to bring lots of changes into the company for drawing more viewers out there as demanded by the owner, and we soon see some of the employees around Anna leaving the company as a consequence.
When she is about to have a private interview with Zora, Anna is understandably quite nervous to say the least, but, what do you know, Zora is very open to Anna’s creative ideas for improving those popular shows of the company. It looks like she is willing to help Anna getting a big break she has hoped for years, and she also suggests that Anna should change her hair for making her look, uh, more presentable. As a matter of fact, she even gives Anna the calling card of some upscale hair salon located somewhere in the city.
At first, Anna is reluctant about giving up her natural Afro-textured hair, but then, tempted by what can be possibly attained by changing her hair, she eventually goes to that posh hair salon. Although it turns out that getting a service there is quite difficult and expensive, Anna soon gets what she wants thanks to some generosity from the owner of the hair salon. After she selects a bunch of hairs to be planted on her head, the process is instantly begun, and she is surely delighted by how she looks different thanks to her new hair.
And this considerable change of her hair affects her career more than expected. Everyone comes to notice Anna more than before, and she finds herself becoming more active in her work. When one of her female colleagues happens to clash with Zora, Anna is the one who persuades that colleague to change her mind, and Zora lets Anna having a little taste of success as everything goes well for their company.
Of course, as already implied to us, there is something quite sinister about Anna’s new hair, which looks like having a life of its own in addition to a certain unspeakable craving. As frequently disturbed by a recurring nightmare, Anna becomes more aware of her new hair’s ominous aura day by day, and her mind keeps coming back to an old African American slave lore she read from a book belonging to her professor uncle. That lore is about some possessed hair with demonic power, and it is quite possible that Anna is its latest target to be possessed.
The movie did a competent job of building up the sense of dread up to that point, but then, unfortunately, it digresses into predictable moments of shocks as its heroine is pushed into more panic and fear as expected, and that is where Simien’s screenplay loses its balance between satire and horror. You may be amused a bit by several brief moments of humor during the climactic part, but they do not mix well with a number of intense scenes poured upon our heroine, and the following ending feels rather unresolved without much impact to linger on our mind.
The main cast members of the movie are mostly adequate on the whole, though many of them are under-utilized to say the least. While Elle Lorraine dutifully holds the center as required, Vanessa Williams has some juicy fun with as Anna’s new immediate superior, and it is a shame that the movie does not explore much the relationship dynamics between her character and Anna. In case of the other notable cast members, Jay Pharoah and Lena Waithe are sadly stuck in their respective thankless supporting roles, and Blair Underwood and Laverne Cox manage to bring some spirit to their functional characters.
In conclusion, “Bad Hair” is not as successful as Simien’s first feature film “Dear White People” (2014), which was incidentally released in South Korea as, to my bafflement and amusement, “Campus Obama War”. To be frank with you, I initially observed its story and characters from the distance as a foreign audience living outside US, but I soon got interested in how that little funny comedy film deftly handles race and other social issues with considerable wit and insight, and it is surely more relevant to us now, considering how the American society has become more troubled since it came out. Although it did not bore me with its intriguing genre exercise, “Bad Hair” is still a disappointing misfire compared to what was wonderfully achieved in “Dear White People”, and I can only hope that Simien will soon move onto better things to come.