The plight of black women and their hair has birthed enough cinematic investigations to yield its own subgenre, from Chris Rock’s astute 2009 documentary “Good Hair” to the 2020 Oscar-nominated animated short “Hair Love.” These endearing cultural explorations are mere preludes to the exuberance of “Bad Hair,” a rambunctious, overindulgent comedy-horror excursion from “Dear White People” director Justin Simien. Equal parts vintage Brian De Palma thriller and race-centric corporate fashion satire in the spirit of “Putney Swope,” Simien’s ludicrous ’80s-spiced supernatural B-movie doesn’t know when to quit, much like the demonic weave at its center.
With 2014’s “Dear White People,” Simien became one of the most exciting writer-director voices in black cinema, merging scathing and satiric observations with genuine insights into contemporary African American frustrations. “Bad Hair” turns the clock back to 1989, elaborating on the thorny issues surrounding black women in popular culture, and may as well be a prequel set in the same snarky universe. However, “Dear White People” managed a tricky balance between snark and genuine social commentary, but even the most acrobatic screenwriting can’t bear the weight of everything Simien tosses into “Bad Hair.” Working overtime to wring substantial insight from a deranged premise about a killer hairstyle with a thirst for blood, the movie’s alternately trying too hard and not hard enough.
At least it’s a substantial mess: “Bad Hair” opens with a James Baldwin quote, digs into the contradictions of the nascent music video industry, and bemoans the sexism of late-’80s workplace — all before tackling the specter of slavery that frames the entire premise. At the same time, it’s a riotous genre pastiche filled with shrieking music cues, canted angles, and shadowy encounters galore. Simien crams the wild psychological thrills of “Body Double” into the framework for wry anti-capitalist humor, and that’s appealing enough in fits at starts. At 115 minutes, however, “Bad Hair” struggles to make its disparate elements click; there’s just enough potential strewn throughout to make it clear the movie could have benefited from a shearing of its own.
It helps that “Bad Hair” musters a compelling first act. Set in 1989 L.A., the movie revolves around aspiring executive assistant Anna (fiery breakout Elle Lorraine), who works as a low-level assistant on the music video show “Culture” and has her eye on a promotion. Those dreams go sour when her supportive boss leaves the company, as Anna’s tasked with ex-model Zora (Vanessa Williams, campy to the extreme), whose first line of business is to steal Anna’s ideas for a new program and encourage her to do something about her hairstyle.
As a disturbing prologue makes clear, the latter challenge carries serious baggage for Anna, thanks to a harrowing childhood experience with a mild relaxer perm that charred her scalp. Desperate to confront that fear, she talks her way into a freebie from ominous stylist Virgie (an intimidating Laverne Cox), who gives Anna such an intense weave that she blacks out. (“You’re not the first,” Virgie hisses.) It’s here that “Bad Hair” arrives at its most brilliant conceit, a harrowing montage of bloody scalp bits set to the wrenching sounds of twisting flesh, which is surely some kind of representational breakthrough.
When she wakes up, Anna’s got a smooth ‘do and renewed confidence to tackle her workplace challenges, but it doesn’t take long for the bodies to start piling up. “Bad Hair” slips on cheesy visual effects as Anna’s living hairstyle snakes around her apartment to train the blood of her perverted landlord, and he’s only the first. Set to Kris Bowers’ moody Bernard Hermann-esque score, the violence of “Bad Hair” struggles to maintain enough self-awareness to make the demented premise stick; just as often, it plays out like an unironic horror movie that happens to have dopey, self-aware asides, and can’t seem to reconcile those two tones as it descends into its ridiculous middle section.
That’s when the mythology grows, tying Anna’s conundrum to slave lore and Native American superstition even as she continues her quest for workplace success, and juggles her boss’ increasingly oppressive demands with the advances of an obnoxious television host (Jay Pharaoh). Much about “Bad Hair” suggests that Simien desperately wants to fold the material into an outrageous comedy, including a bit part for Lena Waithe as Anna’s jokey work pal and tongue-in-cheek cameos by the likes of Usher.
But “Bad Hair” keeps circling back on the same set of circumstances, attempting to deepen its mythology behind the affliction when it’s far more entertaining to simply watch Anna wrestle with its impact on her life. Like last year’s crazed fashion horror-satire “In Fabric,” Simien has tapped into the paradoxes of a capitalist society that compels people to conflate success with self-destruction, in this case applying that observation to a savvy colonialist critique that overstays its welcome. “Bad Hair” has plenty to say — about the plight of black women in particular and blackness in popular culture in general — but his movie can’t settle on laughing off the conflict or regarding it with dread. Instead, it settles on lingering in the knotted chaos, hoping that the message still burns.
“Bad Hair” premiered in the Midnight section at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.