‘Bad Hair’ kicks off Sundance with a do-or-die satire
- Thursday, Jan. 23, 9 p.m., The Ray Theatre
- Saturday, Jan. 25, 3 p.m., Grand Theatre, Salt Lake City
- Sunday, Jan. 26, 11:30 a.m., Egyptian Theatre
- Tuesday, Jan. 28, 11:59 p.m., Library Center Theatre
- Friday, Jan. 31, 3:30 p.m., The Ray Theatre
As Janet Jackson burns up the airwaves and Public Enemy makes a name for itself, Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine) hopes to take advantage of a pivotal moment for African Americans in pop culture by becoming the new face of entertainment television. There’s just one requirement: She’s got to get a weave.
But the weave wants blood.
“Bad Hair,” which helps kick off the Sundance Film Festival in the Midnight category, is a satirical psychothriller written and directed by Justin Simien, who last made a splash at the festival in 2014 with his feature “Dear White People.” Since then, Simien has adapted that film into a critically acclaimed Netflix series with a fourth season on the way, and he hopes his sophomore outing will expand upon the themes of identity both inside and out of marginalized groups that he’s explored in his past work.
The journey of Lorraine’s character in the film is a satire of the personal sacrifices that black Americans — black women, especially — find themselves making in a society with norms and expectations set by white people. And Simien says that the horror at the core of the film is a universal, existential one that nonetheless affects everyone unequally.
“Everybody, no matter your race, creed or religion, we all have to cut off parts of ourselves and subdue parts of ourselves in order to survive, and when you’re part of a marginalized group of people those parts of yourself are larger and varied,” Simien said. “You start to go through life ashamed of what you are naturally.”
Bludso, who wears her hair naturally after a relaxer perm scarred her scalp, begins to see success after she adopts the weave at the behest of her new boss, a former supermodel by the name of Zora (Vanessa Williams). But soon, the new, artificial ‘do reveals its malign intentions.
“(The weave) is not ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ where you hear it talk or anything like that, but it really is a blending of a bunch of different things,” Simien said of his influences. “It’s more in the vein of a ‘Body Snatchers’ and ‘Stepford Wives’ … the evil is not so much on the hair itself as the circumstances that she finds herself in.”
It was important to set the script in 1989, Simien said, both because period horror pieces are effective at grounding the audience and because that era represents a crucial turning point for African Americans in pop culture and thus provides fertile ground to cover the story’s themes.
“For the first time in a really long time, black artists are being played on pop stations and being assimilated into the mainstream culture. … Urban, everyday black culture started to become pop culture,” he said. “I don’t know that we’ve ever really looked at that time period from a cultural standpoint and thinking about the prices that might have been paid for that sudden surge of popularity of black culture.”
Simien has explored the racial politics of fashion and personal aesthetics before in “Dear White People,” and “Bad Hair” zeros in on a pain point for black women in the real world. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, who stood out on Capitol Hill by wearing her hair in braids, recently made waves when she revealed her struggle with alopecia. And studies have shown that black women spend more time and money on hair care, feel that they have fewer options with their hair and encounter more workplace pressure to straighten their hair, which all present financial, cultural and career obstacles.
“It goes so much further than appearance,” Simien said. “If you are not the mainstream ideal of beauty, you sort of are automatically having to inherit all of these self-worth issues that are incredibly debilitating. There are all these assumptions about what you can’t do and what places and spaces you can’t be in because you don’t look a certain way.”
Simien said he’s looking forward to opening the festival with his second visit to Park City.
“It really shows an evolution of what I can do as a filmmaker, and I’m excited to start a whole new conversation.”
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Julian Doan’s short film “Raspberry” will begin its on-demand, virtual Sundance Filim Festival run on Jan. 28.