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.

While Waiting Out The Pandemic, It’s Worth A Watch Of These Classic Films

by Bob Mondello

Critics are often asked “What’s your favorite movie?” — and most of us have learned to deflect the question.

If you see a few hundred films a year, “favorite” is a moving target. Stiil, when pressed, I do have a ready answer: Buster Keaton’s silent, Civil-War comedy The General.

The 1926 black and white epic takes its title from the name of the locomotive that is Buster’s chief love in the film (apart from his fiancée). When his beloved General is stolen by Yankee spies — with the fiancée (Marion Mack) aboard — he gives chase in another locomotive, which leads to all kinds of crazy.

American actor Buster Keaton clinging to the front of a train in a still from the 1926 film, ‘The General.’Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Keaton’s brilliance with physicality meant the film was crammed with acrobatic stunts, daredevil rescues, miracles of comic timing accomplished with full-size trains, including the single most spectacular shot in silent-film history — a bridge collapse that left a real steam locomotive lying deep in the Oregon gorge where the sequence was filmed. It stayed there for decades, becoming a minor tourist attraction until it was carved up for scrap metal during WWII.

Being silent, The General doesn’t have a soundtrack, though its video release has three different orchestral scores. Still you can’t beat the way I saw it with about a thousand fans in Salt Lake City a few years back. As a fundraising treat, NPR member station KUER had arranged for The General to be shown in the Capitol Theatre, a grand old movie palace built in the 1920s. And admission was at 1920s prices: 25 cents a ticket.

Organist Blaine Gale was at the keyboard of what Radio West host Doug Fabrizio referred to as “the Mighty Wurlitzer,” Buster Keaton was on screen in a silvery, digitally restored print, and in no time, a thousand 21st-century moviegoers were shrieking with laughter. Stream it, and you’ll see why.

The General was made 64 years after the real-life Civil War raid, the Great Locomotive Chase, it’s based on. And 63 years after The General, Spike Lee made a ferocious comedy that deals with fallout from the Civil War.

In Do the Right Thing, Lee looked bluntly — and for much of the film, hilariously — at racial prejudice. In a story set in Brooklyn’s Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood, Lee plays Mookie, a pizza delivery guy who does not get along with his boss’s racist son, Pino (John Turturo).

Pointing out that Pino’s favorite basketball player is Magic Johnson, his favorite movie star is Eddie Murphy and his favorite rock star is Prince, Mookie wonders if Pino, “deep down inside,” wishes he were black. When Pino snorts derisively, Mookie responds, “Laugh if you want to. Y’know your hair is kinkier than mine.”

Tension in Do the Right Thing escalates as Lee, who wrote, directed, and produced it — in addition to starring in the film — tightens the screws between laughs.

American film director and actor Spike Lee, left, and actor Danny Aiello on the set of their 1989 film ‘Do the Right Thing.’Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

At the preview I attended in 1989, an African-American woman behind me spent much of the evening amen-ing the characters as if she were at church, and a white student nearby spent the evening seething at every “amen.” At the climax of the film, he hissed at her to be quiet, starting an argument that only stopped because violence erupted onscreen.

A sharper mirror for Lee’s point, I couldn’t imagine then — still can’t.

Lee’s purpose here is to start conversations, not fights. I’ve seen Do the Right Thing quite a few times, and boy does it hold up.

But the film I’ve seen the most tackles difference differently. The comedy Harold and Maude is about age, not race, and involves a 19-year-old (Bud Cort) who’s forever faking his own suicide (elaborately and to the immense annoyance of his unflappable mother), and an in-love-with-life 79-year-old (Ruth Gordon) whom he meets at a funeral.

The movie — perhaps the least likely romantic comedy of that decade — opened to mixed reviews at the tail end of 1971 and its flower-power message got lost in a Christmas crush that included 007 and Dirty Harry. By March it had closed nearly everywhere.

But at one theater in the midwest, Harold and Maud kept playing for more than a year. Other exhibitors, when they noticed, started bringing it back — at first for midnight shows, then for regular runs.

I worked as advertising director for a theater chain at the time, and when I told my boss I’d seen Harold and Maud 19 times (partly because I shared a birthday with Bud Cort) he booked it. I came up with an ad campaign that leaned heavily on the lyrics of the Yusuf (then Cat Stevens) song under the final credits: “If You Want to Be Free, Be Free” — and the odd little romance that initially couldn’t seem to get out of its own way settled in for a nice long run.

Shortly after it opened, I had vacation time coming, so a friend and I grabbed backpacks, bought Eurail passes, and headed for a brisk three-week tour of European capitals.

In Vienna, we saw an ad for a stage production called Harold Und Maude. Couldn’t resist that. The staging of the suicides on the proscenium stage of the Theater An Der Wien was quite clever.

A week later in Paris we found a theater playing Harold Et Maude with the great French actress Madeleine Renaud as MaudeIt was on a thrust stage this time, which meant the suicides had to be done entirely differently.

Though neither production was performed in English, the message of looking past differences and learning to love life came through loud and clear. It never got old, as it were — though I did.

When I first saw the movie I was roughly Harold’s age. Now, I’m approaching Maude’s. Must’ve internalized something from the movie, because I’m not the least bit unhappy about that.