In ‘Bad Hair,’ The Mane Rebels

by Aisha Harris

In the Hulu horror-comedy Bad Hair, a black woman’s weave is more than just a weave. It’s a status symbol. It’s the key to a promotion. It’s … possessed by an evil spirit intent on sowing chaos?

Likewise, Bad Hair itself is more than a social satire. It’s a visual and thematic pastiche of movies like The Fly and Rosemary’s Baby. It’s a loving sendup of black American pop music in the 1980s. It’s a workplace comedy.

It’s … a lot, though (mostly) enjoyably soAs a general rule, writer-director Justin Simien is a bold and ambitious filmmaker whose works practically scream “Go big or go home!” There is never one single perspective, cultural reference, or homage; there are many. In his 2014 feature debut Dear White People, a colorful satire about black millennial anxieties on a predominantly white college campus, he channeled Spike Lee, Wes Anderson and Robert Townsend while tackling colorism, racism, sexuality and microaggressions, for starters. The result was a film that was admirably big on ideas and a vision, but failed to connect all the various dots and stick the landing. (Given more time and space to expand on character development, his Netflix series adaptation of Dear White People fared much better on this front.)

Bad Hair similarly brims with an assortment of concepts, but Simien has graduated to even grander aspirations, and, evidently, a grander budget. The opening scene speaks a language many black women, myself included, will be familiar with: a traumatic childhood experience derived from an attempt to remove the natural kinks and curls of one’s mane. I felt this visual and audible fright viscerally while watching it play out, reminded of the years I spent relaxing my own hair with chemicals as a kid and into young adulthood. Simien’s treatment of this introduction, which features a young girl named Anna (Zaria Kelley), is effective, and sets the tone for the movie’s more intense explorations of body horror.

Fast forward to 1989 Los Angeles, and an adult Anna (Elle Lorraine) works for Culture, a TV network targeted at “urban” (read: black) audiences, a la BET. Anna dreams of becoming the host of her own music countdown show, but the combination of a timid personality, hair that doesn’t conform to white corporate sensibilities, and outright sexism has kept her sidelined in an assistant role. When a new boss, Zora (Vanessa Williams), arrives on the scene to revamp the network, Anna is advised to do something about her hair, or risk being stuck for the rest of her career.

Anna goes to the most sought-after stylist in the city to get her first weave. (The installation of the weave is chilling and expertly edited by Phillip J. Bartell and Kelly Matsumoto. Warning: This is not a film for the squeamish.) But while the new hair ‘do brings her welcome attention at work, it soon becomes clear that the strands have a mind of their own.

Here is where Simien’s skills as a visual stylist are again at odds with his limitations when it comes to the text. Some of the details that connote Anna’s relationship to her new style are inventive and fun; in one scene, for instance, the hair flip is deployed as a tactic in the middle of a professional power grab between Anna and Zora. Cinematographer Topher Osborn mimics a grainy ’70s cinema look that successfully exudes a creeping paranoia. And the details, from the spot-on nods to Control-era Janet Jackson (Kelly Rowland plays a Janet-esque pop star named Sandra) to the intricate corporate dynamics, are astutely rendered.

But layered on top of all of those smart takes is a muddled, confusing attempt at bringing in folklore that is haphazardly sprinkled in, particularly in the third act. Bad Hair gets weighted down by too many loose ends left unsatisfyingly dangling in the wind: The weave brings the terror, but what, exactly, are we supposed to take away from Simien’s depiction of this fraught subject of black women’s hair? It’s never quite clear, and there’s a missed opportunity to really unpack the psychological impact of beauty ideals within black communities and professional spaces.

Still, the movie moves briskly enough and the performances work. Lena Waithe, Laverne Cox and Blair Underwood find moments of spark in smaller roles as Anna’s colleague, witchy stylist and mythology-loving uncle, respectively. And as Zora, Williams is deliciously catty and calculating, channeling mean lady vibes similar to the ones she used as Wilhelmina on Ugly Betty. She works wonders with insults and shade, striking exactly the the right notes when the movie hits its campy, B-horror movie stride. 

Simien seems even more assured as a filmmaker here than he did in his debut, and the promise shown in Dear White People feels closer to being fulfilled; the specificity with which he depicts workplace culture and black music are a treat to watch. If Bad Hair feels overstuffed and ultimately slight when it comes to its central conceit around hair, at the very least it’s still a fun ride.

Comedy Clubs Are Closed, So To Reach Audiences, Comics Have To Improvise

By Elizabeth Blair

Colin Quinn says performing on virtual platforms won’t ever come close to appearing in a club full of strangers because it lacks “the tension” of the live experience. He’s writing a book that draws from some of the material he explored in his Red State Blue State special — and says he now has no excuse not to finish it.
CQE, Inc.

At a time when we really need to keep a sense of humor, comedy clubs are closed. Stand-up comedians are on lockdown. So what do you do if your career is making people laugh? You can write jokes while you shelter in place, but how do you know if they’re funny?

“I don’t know until I get in front of an audience,” says comedian Marina Franklin. For her special Single Black Female, Franklin worked out jokes in small clubs for about 100 people before filming the special for an audience of 1,000 at the Vic Theatre in Chicago.

In normal times, Franklin would be out at New York comedy clubs six nights a week. That kind of exposure can lead to acting jobs or the chance to open for bigger name comedians.

“Every night in New York City is an opportunity; you never know who’s going to see you,” she says. But during quarantine, “It’s been oddly quiet amongst the comedy community.” Franklin’s been spending more time focused on her podcast Friends Like Us but still finding the seeds of future material.

“I have had several things happen to me that are pretty funny,” she says. She got into a fight about social distancing at the farmer’s market — “not a place where you normally would fight” — and scolded the man selling fish for yelling Next! “There’s no screaming during pandemic time,” she laughs. “And why are we in a hurry? No one’s going anywhere.”

So, Franklin has material, but she’s concerned about some of her comedian friends who need audience feedback to thrive. “Some comedians, they have depression and mental illness — that’s rampant in the comedy scene, it’s rampant in the world,” she says. “So I do worry [about] the lack of feedback.”

Mike Birbiglia agrees. “Comedians rely so much on audiences to relay their deep, inner most thoughts and feelings about things,” he says. “And when you can’t do that on stage, it’s worrisome.”

Like a lot of comedians, Birbiglia has turned to the Internet to connect with audiences. With help from Roy Wood, Jr., he started “Tip Your Waitstaff,” a series of Instagram Live videos in which Birbiglia talks to fellow comedians about the jokes they’re working on. Gary Gulman, John Mulaney, Emmy Blotnick and Hannibal Buress are among the comedians who’ve participated.

The series is a fundraiser to help comedy clubs around the country including The DC Improv (where Birbiglia got his start), The Comedy Cellar in New York, The Stardome outside Birmingham, Ala., and The Comedy Attic in Bloomington, Ind.

Birbiglia says the Instagram audience takes some getting used to, especially keeping up with the streaming bursts of written comments that quickly roll up the screen. After he interviewed John Mulaney they talked on the phone about how fast the comments go by. Mulaney likened it to watching “1,000 audience members all talk at the same time.’ “

Birbiglia has had to cancel a number of appearances because of the pandemic. He figures he might as well get used to performing virtually since there’s no telling when clubs and theaters will reopen.

Veteran stand-up Colin Quinn was always planning to use this time to finish writing his forthcoming book Overstated: A Coast-To-Coast Roast of the 50 States. The pandemic “takes all your excuses away for not working on things like that,” jokes Quinn. He’s hearing that comedy clubs won’t reopen until 2021. As for performing on virtual platforms like Zoom, Quinn doesn’t think they’ll ever come close to replacing a club full of strangers because it lacks “the tension” of the live experience.

“It’s got to have that element of ‘Oh, this could really fall apart, and this person could be collectively, publicly humiliated,’ ” Quinn says. “That’s part of comedy. It’s the thing you try to avoid in comedy but it’s got to be in the air.”

As for new jokes he’s thinking about now, Quinn’s latest annoyance is “the new sincerity.” It’s always been there, but now, in the midst of the coronavirus, he says “everybody on social media feels compelled to weigh in and go, ‘Hey, guys, be safe. Put your mask on.’ “

Mark Twain once said that laughter is humanity’s “one really effective weapon,” and without it, all of the comedians I interviewed talked about feeling “powerless.” Rob Corddry and some of his comedian friends have been making funny videos specifically intended to cheer up health care workers. Corddry got the idea from a doctor friend who was diagnosed with COVID-19 but kept working from home, taking care of the mental well-being of her staff. He says she was worried that their spirits were sagging.

“She was worried about their cheer, you know, because that affects everything. That affects their momentum,” says Corddry. “So I just thought: Well, I know a lot of funny people that can make videos.” Eventually those videos turned into a fundraiser called Funny You Should Mask in which comedians such as Eric Andre, Sasheer Zamata and Nicole Byer interview health care workers.

Corddry says it is “very sad” to see comedy venues in dire straits. At the same time, he says, something this awful could also lead to some great material. “When comedians get this much of a glimpse at their own mortality, you can expect some pretty funny comedy coming down the pike,” says Corddry.

When that day comes, we’ll be ready.

‘Insecure’ Co-Star Yvonne Orji Says Molly Is A ‘Beautiful Mess’

When Insecure debuted on HBO in 2016 Issa Rae and her best friend Molly were on the brink of 30. They navigated broken hearts, gentrification in Los Angeles, and workplace discrimination. Now, at the outset of Season 3, they’re leaving their 20s behind and are still making mistakes — but with a little more confidence.

Yvonne Orji, who plays Molly, says viewers resonate with her character because she is “a beautiful mess.” In fact, if things had gone a little differently for her in college, Orji says, “Molly is who I would have been.”

Interview Highlights

On finding faith when she was in college

My faith has definitely been the guiding force in a lot of my life and a lot of my decisions. … I went to a Bible study like two months into my freshman year and met this woman who referred to God as “Daddy” and I was like, What’s wrong with her? She got daddy issues? Why is she calling God “Daddy”?

And there was something so pure and passionate about her relationship with God that caused that to not be weird for her. And I’m kind of competitive, but I always say … I’m competitive in reverse. [Some] people are competitive for power – I was just like, I want to have a relationship with God like she does, whatever I have to do to get there … that’s what I want.

Orji, left, and Issa Rae star in HBO’s Insecure, which is now in its third season.

Merie W. Wallace/HBO

On abandoning her plan to become a doctor

I had plans: I was like, Yeah, I’m going to be a doctor.Don’t know how. I didn’t like organic chemistry or blood — but it sounds good.

And then God’s like, Hey, what if I told you I had other plans? and I was like, Well, I guess this is one of those tests they talk about in the Bible, so, let’s go! And I’m now currently living a life that I never imagined.

On her view that abstaining from sex can be empowering

Anytime you talk about virginity there’s a lot of backlash for a lot of different reasons, right? … People are like: That’s not empowering to still be a virgin — because, you know, we don’t tell guys to be virgins and so … it’s another way that the church holds women hostage. … I don’t get into that, because, for me, I’m like: Everything in life is a choice. So I always say: if you can look yourself in the mirror and you’re happy with all the decisions that you make — then like, please, continue on.

On the saying she has tattooed on her wrist

[It] translates to: Nigerians don’t finish second place. We don’t finish last. … Being Nigerian, that’s what my parents taught me: You know, just this fearlessness, this resilience … we don’t fail.

On how her Nigerian parents reacted to her decision not to go to medical school

At the end of the day they just want you to succeed. They don’t know that you can [succeed] in something that they are not privy to. A friend of mine who’s spent more time in Nigeria than in America said: You know, it’s not that your parents don’t want you to do this entertainment thing. But you have handicapped their ability to be the best parents. Because if you told them you want to do engineering, they know Mrs. So-and-So’s son is an engineer. They can call her. They can connect you two and he can give you instructions on what to do. He can help you find a job after you’re done school. You have told them you want to be a “jester” — which is what my mom called me when I said I want to do comedy — … who can they go to to say: Can you help my daughter? If you fail it is a direct reflection of their failure. And it just put so many things in perspective for me.

On what she learned from her mom

My mom would say: You must be nice to everybody because you don’t know if you’re entertaining angels without your knowledge. And like, that’s stuck with me. … If you’re good, then good will come back. And I was like, Mom, you taught me that and that seeped into my career. … You did help me. You taught me resilience. … you’ve helped me succeed in my “jestering” business.

On walking the red carpet with her mom

She came to the premiere. … One of the special moments in my life was being able to fly my mom and my brother out here. My mom [got] to like walk the red carpet with me and just kind of see like this dream fulfilled. Because at the end of the day, everything I was doing was for the betterment of my family.

On what her mom thinks of the show, which can get a bit raunchy

I think the first time Molly cursed my mom looked at me and was like, I did not raise you to use such words. … I was like, Mom, I don’t curse in my real life. …

Before any of the intimate scenes happen [in the show] she … went back to Nigeria thankfully but then Insecure started playing in Nigeria and I was like, Aw, this is it! This is the end! But because we’re such a heavily Christian country they edit out a lot of the intimate stuff. … You know, God is good, he’s always looking out.

Sophia Boyd and Ed McNulty produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.