Recently, I was speaking with a successful screenwriter, playwright and showrunner, talking to him about the choices aspiring writers face early in their career. Often, they’re asked to work on material that’s beneath them — maybe even something they find morally objectionable — but when you’re desperate for money or to get your foot in the door, well, those undesirable opportunities start to sound awfully tempting. So what advice would the successful writer give to someone starting off?
The man said something I’d never heard expressed this way before: “Your career isn’t defined by the things you say yes to — they’re defined by what you say no to.” It was really smart, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize that his point extends way beyond movies. In all our lives, we’re faced with choices, and sometimes the things we accept — or won’t accept — tell us more about ourselves than we might care to admit. What are we willing to put up with? What compromises are allowable? How much is our integrity worth?
That writer’s comment was dancing around in my head while watching Bad Hair, a horror-comedy that touches on plenty of subjects, including the challenges Black professionals face working in white workplaces and the pressure on Black women to be more “conventionally beautiful.” But connecting all its themes is this notion of when to say yes or no to things — and what happens when you make the mistake of agreeing to something that you probably shouldn’t. Everyone’s had a bad haircut. But no one’s experienced anything like what Bad Hair’s main character endures.
The film stars newcomer Elle Lorraine as Anna, “a dark skinned girl from Compton,” as the press notes describe her, who works in the cutthroat music industry in 1989, an era when hop-hop and New Jack Swing were starting to dominate the charts. Anna is employed at an MTV-esque channel that has an “urban” program called Culture, which plays hits from the likes of the Fellas (think early Boyz II Men) and Sandra (Control-era Janet Jackson). Although she’s bright and capable and has paid her dues at the network for years, Anna is mostly invisible, largely because her thick, natural curls aren’t as attractive to the white men who run the channel. (It’s not the only reason, though: As we quickly discover, lighter-skinned Black women at the company get treated more favorably — they have the right “look.”) Anna doesn’t want to get a weave — the preferred hairstyle for the channel’s successful Black executives, like the snotty new program director (and former supermodel) Zora (Vanessa Williams) — but if she wants to get ahead, maybe she should consider it.
Some horror movies and thrillers start out with this sort of Faustian bargain — sure, Bradley Cooper will get super-smart in Limitless by taking that experimental pill… at what cost, though? — but few have explored the cultural and emotional anguish that such a decision entails as deftly as Bad Hair, which is written and directed by Justin Simien. Six years ago, he made his feature debut with Dear White People, a skillful, kaleidoscopic comedy that looked at the Black experience at an elite, white-centric university. Like that film, Bad Hair uses genre trappings to say something serious about racial inequality and the anxious loss of identity that can occur for Black men and women when they enter into white spheres. This time, though, Simien is exploring those realities through scares and a few giggles.
Advised to visit a particular high-end salon, Anna (who’s tender-headed) submits to a weave, even though it’s a physically painful process. (You’re not the first person to pass out in the chair, the stylist tells her reassuringly.) But Anna is willing to submit to the agony if she can finally advance in her career, and sure enough, once she returns to the office, she’s turning heads and demonstrating to her new boss Zora that she’s a serious professional. (She was before the weave too, of course, but you know how much appearances matter.) Never mind that some of her Black colleagues feel like she’s betrayed her integrity: Anna is finally getting what she wanted, which was to be listened to in meetings, as opposed to being treated as a token person of color. If all it takes is sacrificing her natural hair and conforming to a more “palatable” form of Blackness that will appeal to a wider/whiter society, what’s the harm?
Anybody watching Bad Hair will guess that Anna will pay a price for her choice, but Simien keeps things interesting by connecting the plot complications to the bigger societal ideas at play. At first, Anna has a tough time adjusting to this weave — it feels like it’s not part of her, even though it’s literally sewn into her — but soon she’ll realize that her new straight hair is sentient. When her drunken landlord tries to rape her, she momentarily fends him off by stabbing the guy, but after that doesn’t work, the hair springs into action, shooting a tentaticle-like strand directly into his wound and sucking all the blood out of him. When she starts menstruating soon after, the hair dives down to soak up every last drop. Anna’s weave, however, eventually seems less interested in helping her than in satisfying its own desires. Like a parasitic creature, the weave has its own mind and plans on calling the shots, no matter what Anna thinks.
That’s a funny, scary idea, but it’s also about the unintended consequences of careerist ambition. At work, Anna flaunts her newfound success — she’s cockier and a little less kind once she gets that weave — and seems wholly at peace with jettisoning her principles. (Anna initially disliked Zora, resentful of how her new boss sold her soul to the white power structure. But after the weave gets her more attention, Anna decides maybe learning to play the game isn’t such a bad thing.) Bad Hair’s best joke is that, although the weave may be evil, Anna has become a monster, too. By saying yes to the weave — by trading away a crucial part of her identity to fit in — she’s defined herself in a very unflattering way.
Because Bad Hair’s horror premise is heavily metaphoric, the worry is that, once you get the joke, there won’t be much more to the film. Simien doesn’t entirely dodge that problem, but he’s helped by Lorraine, who makes Anna such a sympathetic figure that we understand why she gives into peer pressure. Anna’s a bit of a misfit — cool enough to have an on-again/off-again hookup arrangement with Julius (Jay Pharoah), a self-absorbed VJ, but unable to land a steady relationship or feel like she’s getting anywhere in her job. Bad Hair makes it pretty plain why she feels she has to compromise and what she loses in the process.
All of us face tough choices in our jobs and our lives, and so while Anna’s dilemma is, in some ways, universal, it’s also magnified to an alarming and sometimes hilarious degree. Occasionally, we all have to ask if we’ve given away a part of ourselves in the name of financial security — if we compromised our ethics or principles to win the rat race. For Anna, those worries are compounded by the very real fear that her killer weave will destroy everyone, including maybe herself.
On its simplest level, Bad Hair is a lament for the hoops Black women must jump through in order to appear “desirable.” But as the horror escalates — and the parody of horror-movie conventions start popping up — it’s clear that Simien is also expressing the terror Black Americans feel about white mainstream society. Like Get Out and Sorry to Bother You, Bad Hair turns everyday reality into the landscape for a scary satire — in fact, for many people, the two are indistinguishable from one another.
We’re defined by what we say yes and no to. What Bad Hair suggests is that, for the Annas of the world, there really aren’t options. You say yes because you have no choice, and then you live with the horror of what you’ve done.