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We Are Made to Feel Ashamed of Ourselves: Justin Simien on Bad Hair

Six years ago, Justin Simien arrived to Sundance with “Dear White People,” a comedy set on a college campus which questioned identity and the parameters of Blackness. The film won the festival’s dramatic prize and spawned a long-running streaming series on Netflix. Nevertheless, 2020 marked the return of Simien to the festival, this time with “Bad Hair.” Set in 1989 Los Angeles, Simien’s horror flick questions a systematic oppression predicated by fashion and standards of beauty. 

The film follows the soft-spoken Anna (Elle Lorraine), who wears her hair naturally after a childhood accident left her scalp badly scarred. She works as an assistant for the television station Culture. However, Anna dreams of one day hosting her own show. But when Zora (Vanessa Williams) assumes control of the station, attempting to rebrand it, Anna comes to realize that her only chance at advancement is to get a weave. Pretty soon, her co-workers also change their looks, like Brook-Lynne (Lena Waithe) and Sista Soul (Yaani King Mondschein) to match the station’s new brand. However, after her makeover Anna discovers that her weave is parasitic. It loves blood, and uses her as a host to kill.    

In its simplest form, “Bad Hair” is camp horror. The practical effects are realistic and the deaths are cartoonish. But when one considers that Culture, a Black affiliate, is now being co-opted for white entertainment, along with the film’s usage of African folklore, and its deconstruction of how standards of beauty adversely affect Black women, “Bad Hair” is nothing short of another ambitious entry into the Black horror genre that Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” nearly perfected.  

What compelled you to write or do a horror film? 

I mean there's a few things, man. Like one of them, very practically is that me and the producers of “Dear White People” and “Bad Hair” were having a conversation about hair horror, which is like a sub-genre of Asian horror films, particularly a movie called “The Wig” and a movie called “X Day” or “Extension.” 

We kind of joked about it and laughed it off. It's like, why isn't there like an American version of it? That'd be crazy. Ha ha. And I just put it in the back of my mind and it started to blossom into what would eventually become “Bad Hair.” And I felt like as a filmmaker, no one has as much fun frankly as white men doing psycho thrillers. 

Nobody has as much fun. And it really starts with “Vertigo.” It's like “Vertigo” is like the blueprint of a white man taking all of his obsessions, whatever they may be. However politically uncouth and distasteful, they might be, and pouring all of that into something and making something personal that also gives you a ride, but also gives you way more to think about. 

And there was a freedom in that genre that I feel like was available to me, which made me feel like, “Oh, I got to do it.” And so then I started working out a treatment. I realized I wanted to set the movie in 1989, which came through some research and realizing that really was the year that the weave sort of burst onto the national scene for everyday Black women. 

That's sort of when with Janet we started to understand, “Oh, how does she do somersaults in that hair?” And we started to understand what that technology is. It’s literally on the cover of Ebony magazine. You can find the year, you can find the month that it crosses over. So that felt interesting. 

I'm like gathering literally every Black woman I know that would talk to me that's a storyteller. And we just started talking about what is the horror of this experience for you? And some of it was like the actual horror of getting the thing or like, you know, straightening the hair or whatever. But the real horror felt like, even though these were choices that they were making, it felt like they really weren't choices. Which I think every Black person feels.

I actually feel like every American feels it, but Black people feel it acutely. Like we get to name it. I think trans Black people, trans Black women probably get it the absolute worst. But like Black women in particular get it bad, where like you have to choose between yourself as you are and your ambition; yourself as you are is not even like an option on the table of options. And these options don't really feel like options, and you sort of feel like the more you succeed, there is this feeling like all of me didn't make it through the wringer of success. You know? 

I feel that way. Yeah. I don't know, six years since my big break, I'm like, “I don't think all of me made it through this process” Like part of my heart and soul didn't make it from my childhood through the process of assimilating into American culture and the ideas of American success.

And so I realized that that was the thing that was the horror in the movie. It's like all of the little conditionings and dials and levers and cultural cues. And we're sort of guiding these women to be pitted against each other, to be pitted against themselves and to be led to these false choices. Like get a weave or be fired. That's not really a choice when you can't pay your rent. And then “Get Out” came out and it was like, “Oh, this isn't just a weird obsession.” There's a new genre forming about horror, psycho thriller films that are rooted in the truth of the Black American experience. And it made a lot of money of course. And so I was able to actually like get this movie into production that way.

You just mentioned the freedom that the drama offers you. I love "Dear White People" because it’s so in your face. It's unabashedly Black, and "Bad Hair" is unabashedly Black, but in a different way. I feel like horror allows for digestible packaging. 

I feel like the ones that stick with my bones are like “Rosemary's Baby,” “Carrie,” “The Shining,” and “Bodysnatchers.” Those are very personal movies that are coming from obsessed people, and tying together a lot of their obsessions. And more and more I just sort of like researched into this story, and started pulling my script together and figuring out how to make the movie, the more and more I felt like so many of my obsessions sort of combined into this story. And I just sort of went with that.

In "Bad Hair" you use Black folklore and the whole time I was watching and thinking, “Oh, I wonder where he got this from?” Like my background is in English, a BA and an MA, but I’ve never seen that topic covered much. It’s difficult to find a class on Black folklore. What's the research process for those stories? Were they something that you already knew or was that something that you discovered along the way? 

It came out of the research process, and likewise, I felt the same way of like, how did I not know that like literally my ancestors were telling themselves all of these stories that I don't have access to, and in their own way are saying things that are profoundly true about the Black experience. You know, it's not in Hansel and Gretel, you know what I'm saying? And it just felt like another one of those ways that culture sort of cuts me off from myself. And likewise in the movie, like you get, at least I hope you get the feeling that like, you know, if only Anna had time with these stories to interrogate them and their meaning, she might've had a few more resources as a person navigating this system.

Like, one of my favorite stories is, you know, it's partly in the movie, is the Flying African story. Which is the idea that Black people, when they first got here from Africa, just flew back because Africans were magical. And what the slave owners learned, is that if you pour salt on them, it takes away their magic powers. And when you think about the relation with Black people and salt, and the things that we're fed that empower us versus other things that we're fed that don't empower us, I'm like, that is an incredible intuitive wisdom that like our ancestors, like put in a fable that I don't have access to that I've never had access to. And again, like the Moss Haired Girl story is made up, but I hope, I hope, people sort of scratch that itch.

One of my favorites is the story of the Tar Baby, which I think I grew up just feeling like that's just racist. Like people just use the term “tar baby,” but it comes from one of those Breyer rabbit stories. And the idea of the tar baby is that there's this tiger that's drawn in by the blackness of the tar baby, and he keeps swiping at it. The more he swipes at it, the more its claws get stuck by the tar. And it's basically the analogy of using their hatred of your blackness to ensnare them. But like that story was never taught to me or explained to me in that way. And like, I don't know, there's something about that, that I felt like belonged in this movie because the stories Anna is being told about herself.

That really is like the mechanics of the horror and the movie. All the music she's listening to, if you listen to the lyrics, there’s all this fucked up messaging from Sandra (Kelly Rowlands) talking about I'll do whatever it takes to get it. And you know, it’s basically instructing women how to be in society, and getting a sense of all of these people that are being run by somebody white. They're at the top of RMV or the top of their respective record labels. Those are the people actually pulling the puppet strings and making us tell ourselves these same stories over and over again. And it's the stories that like maybe could have saved her that are being kept away from her.

It's definitely like how messaging gets like lost over the decades. Like, if you think about Topsy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Yeah. That image has been used so often, it's almost lost its meaning. 

Well ultimately, like so many things that Black people do that is of our own accord, and with our own resources, they eventually get co-opted and used against us. I mean I made the movie really, I designed it in a way so that there would be things about it that when you get to the end of it, like just don't make any fucking sense and you just got to watch it again. Because there's a lot of that going on. 

You know, there's really this sub-story about the nature of stories, and the ones that we tell ourselves, and the ones that are told to us, and the ones that we think are ours, but they're actually owned by other people. And there's a lot of that going on that I think is important because like you can only aspire to be what society tells you is an option for you. 

You can't want to be an astronaut before you hear about NASA. You know what I mean? Like in 1989, and just like today, there's only a few versions of black womanhood. Anna felt like she couldn’t herself to get to where she was trying to go in society. And that's just the story. So who's telling us that story and why do we believe it? I think that's an interesting thing to interrogate.

When talking about ownership of stories, at the Q&A for "Bad Hair" and you talked about the producers giving you free rein. Did you feel like you didn’t need writing process to amend or collaborate certain parts of your story this time around, as opposed to the writing process for say "Dear White People"?

I mean one thing I learned from doing the show, because I couldn't have known when I made “Dear White People,” is how much Black women is our primary audience. I guess you know, it's like 60/40 but it's still like Black women have a relationship to “Dear White People” that is different. And with the show it was like, “Okay, well then it's very important to make sure I have a lot of different versions, like different kinds of Black women with me writing this show and behind the camera and stuff.” And so, I took that philosophy, which I learned from making the show, to this process and I just sort of begged literally every Black woman that was a storyteller to be a part of this creative process in some way.

It started with a workshop, where I bought a bunch of people to Palm Springs to talk about the movie with me, and to watch scary movies, and talk about like, what is the most horrific aspect of your experience. How can I tell this in a way that doesn’t make you feel like I took your story from you? 'Cause I feel like I have something to say here, but I don't want to say it if I can't say it in a way that feels authentic to you. And so, we had workshops, we had writers groups, we had read throughs, we had lots of screenings. And really, I just sort of took that philosophy of just having my tribe of chosen people to sort of help me, and be around the movie at all times.

With the role of Black men and "Bad Hair," it seems like often they almost edit themselves out. Like Usher wants to say something's wrong, but he doesn’t. Are Black men maybe not supporting Black women as much as we could?

Right. Well, I think in the movie there's a lot of layers of oppression that's affecting Anna. There's the racial oppression that she's dealing with, but there's also the patriarchal oppression that she's dealing with. And the men in the movie, the Black men in the movie themselves are also under different systems of oppression. And none of them are in control of it. That is what I hope comes through. They're sort of pitted against each other instead of against their real enemies. I feel like if we look, if we're talking about songs like “Poison,” it's like that’s that. That was what was celebrated about Black masculinity at the time. But ultimately it's a song about not trusting a woman because she's really attractive. Which is fucking crazy.

There's always a cost. And if this system can sort of get the people that it's depressing to sort of look at each other, as the people you gotta take out to get to where you're going, you'll never turn around and look at who's actually pulling the strings. And so that's why so often like these Black men who are also operating in their own patriarchy, they're also participating in the oppression of these women in some way. Both victims and victimizers. I think in this fucked up system that we all find ourselves in, it's not so much a statement as it is an observation.

Sometimes when that happens, I find that when everyone is battling with our own oppressions, sometimes it can turn out to be a Black person being very comfortable with being the only Black person in a room.

Yeah, absolutely. Where it's like, I gotta be the one Black person. If there's a second Black person, then I'm less valuable. And the thing that the movie tries to do is like, take a person that's caught up in a system like that and not necessarily say it’s their fault, but just observe it. It's the system that makes you feel like being the only one is valuable. You know what I'm saying? Because everyone's just trying to survive. We're all conditioned by our culture and by America to take the carrot that's in front of us, to survive everything, to aspire to move upward. And so that's all anyone is doing in the movie. But the people who have the least options are the people who are in the most danger, and the people who are the most vulnerable. That was the sort of system I wanted to try to interrogate in this home.

I do think it’s interesting that Anna's consistently trying to pull everyone together, “You’ve gotta get a weave.” Trying to pull other Black women with her up the ladder. Is it partly because of the hair or because she's just a good person?

She’s constantly being presented with choices that are not real choices. You know, like you got to get a weave or get fired, or you have to get these women on board or you lose your friendships. She's also being presented a lot of tools. It seemed really benign and helpful. Like the code to the door. Or the gun under the table.

These things are like, “Oh, this is gonna empower me.” But actually, it does something else that ensnares her just a little bit further. And I don't know, that's my experience being Black in America. And I feel like it's even worse for Black women. That's because in a dog eat dog system, you take what you can get. There's a lot of times the choice is really not a choice. And I kind of wanted to point that out. 

This is probably more of a personal story for you. You spoke at the Q&A about some characters being named after family members: aunts and your mom. What were the feelings behind that?

One of them was just a spiritual one and it was just like, I had lost my [aunt] Virgi, which was the last of my mother's sisters. I just didn't want their names to be forgotten. Shit. I wasn't gonna cry. 

I just feel like, so many of our stories, in particular Black women in this case, often die with us and our names die with us. And I was looking at my family and like how we are named. So vibrantly. 

Sora. Edna. Virgi. Ana. I wanted to hear their names and put them in this story that is ultimately about what happens when you cut people off from their stories. There was no calculus to it. It just felt like the right thing to do. It felt like a way to pay homage. 

And when you were crafting those characters with these names, did you use any other details? Or did you feel any pressure? Like, okay, this person is named after this person, so have to do this.

No. I very intentionally told my mother, I was like, “This is not autobiographical in any way, shape or form.” It's really our namesakes, you know? It's funny cause like a bunch of coincidences started popping up. One of which is that there really was a hair salon called Verges in Los Angeles. 

Some of the mechanics of the film: how much are the hair movements spawned from practical effects?

Every time it does something, there's at least a practical base. Sometimes you're watching just practical effects. Sometimes you're watching practical accentuated by digital. Sometimes you're watching digital completely overlaid with the practical. But with everything we did, there's a practical in-camera version of it. 

I think, especially when you're doing something that like, there's no place you can go in nature to see what a possessed weave would do. You know,  it's cool to see what it would do in a real-world kind of environment, and the physics of it I just felt like would be more believable, even if we were accentuating it digitally, than if we just sort of just did it all CGI. 

So I worked with a guy named Tony Gardner who does a lot of the Chucky effects. In the studio we created puppets, and played with reverse photography, and what happens when we put the hair in a water tank and shoot it up this way. So it was just a lot of playing around this thing where we could get it to do on camera, and went with that, and sort of accentuated that.

I love all the mock music videos too. I know you wrote some songs, right? Did you go in saying, “I'm going to write these songs and these are going to be on the soundtrack?” Or was it just something you fell into?

I mean, again, I'm following my obsessions. I have written music as a hobby since I was a kid. I never had like real aspirations to go into it. But like, I've have songs come to me in the shower and I like going to pro tools and making a version of it. But you know, I've just accumulated all these songs. Music and television felt interesting to me because there were opportunities, but there were also things being taken away from Black people with New Jack Swing coming up.

I felt like the music could operate like a kind of Greek chorus. Like the singers and “Little Shop of Horrors.” They're both like warning the characters subtly. And then at the same time, and since this is a movie about the stories we tell ourselves, music is a story. 

With "Dear White People," my favorite line is, “Why can't we just be ourselves?” You know? It feels like in your films, people are always struggling with their identity. I guess, it’s a truism of the Black experience in America. But could talk more about that line? 

It's like, we are made to feel ashamed of ourselves. That's part of the American experience. In order to be a value to society, you play a role that has market value for Black people. There are just less roles available. I feel this pressure to sort of fit into a role If I hope to have any market value. Which is the same as saying I hope to survive. I feel like through cultural conditioning, through popular culture, through literacy laws, through codes of conduct, you know, talking about this kid who came, and couldn’t walk in his own graduation because in the code of conduct his braids, his dreads are not professional.

We're made to feel ashamed of ourselves. And I feel like that shame. That shame is like such a driving force. We don't even realize it's there sometimes. I mean, I feel that way as a filmmaker. You have to make a calculation every time, especially if you're Black. Like what kind of lane they're going to let you in, and what kind of pitches are going to sell for you. There's always that calculus. And I think that's the first way they get us to participate in our oppression. 

But it's like, I think that's how they get us to participate in our own sort of traps. So like I said, I think it's worth interrogating because you know, the most insidious shackles are the ones we can't really see.

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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