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Lawrence Davis’ Rare Craft Is Fixing Hollywood’s Hairstyle Shortcoming
Mahershala Ali, Dee Rees, and Barry Jenkins explain the vital role the "Watchmen" hairstylist plays in their visual storytelling.
No hairstylist has been more instrumental in shaping the looks of African American actors and actresses for television and film of the last 10 years than Lawrence Davis, one of the most sought-after talents in his field. His skill alone doesn’t account for why Davis has worked on more than 80 movies and TV series — in addition to winning two Emmys — his real talent lies in how he uses his craft in a critical, and often underestimated role in the visual storytelling of a film or TV series.
“It’s a key element of defining a character for an actor because hair is a language too, especially for Black people,” said Mahershala Ali, who brought Davis onto “Green Book” and “True Detective” to collaborate with to establish his characters. “It’s hard to overstate the value of — or at least how — African Americans express something about themselves through how they chose to wear their hair. Sometimes it’s even a statement of protest how an African American can choose to wear their hair. From the afro to the cornrows to, in my generation back in high school, [when we] started cutting all the flat tops and designs in our hair — it’s always been this place where we make a conscious choice to say something about ourselves. And so how a character is wearing their hair, you have to assume that is a very conscious choice.”
In television, the hairstylist’s role can be a vital cog in the pre-production process, influencing choices for not only the lead performers, but also makeup, costuming, cinematography, and directing. Executive producer and director Nicole Kassell, who worked with Davis on the pilots of “Claws” and “Watchmen,” says there is no one better. “Lawrence is a genius, and was such a gift to ‘Claws,'” Kassell said. “For Niecy Nash’s character there were lots of discussions: ‘Should it be really short, chin, bob?’ Lawrence was instrumental in trying these different looks and bringing these ideas.”
Nash kept encouraging the creative team to go really big with her hair to match the Florida nail salon setting of the show, a bold storytelling stroke that Kassell said created some nerves, one that Davis helped calm by experimenting with and showing the creative team how Nash’s instincts were right. After the “Claws” experience, Kassell brought Davis onto “Watchmen” to help navigate the enormous series’ extreme hair demands.
“On ‘Watchmen,’ the challenge there was working with the right costume that works for the different masks, and then pulling off things like 1921 and the ‘Oklahoma’ musical,” said Kassell. “There’s just not a scene, or period, or style that you can throw out where he won’t rise to the occasion.”
Initially drawn to the sewing machine, Baltimore native Davis would eventually realize during his college years that his passion for hairstyling offered another path towards working alongside the world’s greatest actors.
After styling hair for 11 years in his hometown, he sold his business and moved to California, where Halle Berry’s then-stylist, Neeko Abriol, gave Davis a shot in his salon. But it was in 2002 when he experienced his career-defining moment: that was the year he was hired as a freelancer for E! Entertainment Television, where he worked for more than 10 years.
Every celebrity in film, television, music, and fashion stopped by E! to be seen and heard, and Davis styled many of them and demonstrated the diversity of his skill set. He established a reputation that opened numerous doors, first coming onboard “The Tyra Show” in 2005, which landed him an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Hairstyling for Daytime Television. “Lawrence is such a gentle and pleasing soul,” Banks remembered. “He took care of my hair and was a warm presence for my team and I to be around.”
In the years since, Davis has styled for numerous films, television series, editorial layouts, and commercials starring some of Hollywood’s biggest names. He may be an in-demand hair stylist to megawatt stars like Oprah Winfrey, in addition to leading the hair teams on contemporary television series like “Being Mary Jane” and “Greenleaf” — but it is the period pieces that have come to define him.
The importance of getting period hair detail right cannot be overstated. To create the sharp line in the front of Don Shirley’s hair style in “Green Book,” instead of using clippers and combing Ali’s hair forward, Davis chose for the actor to grow his hairline out and comb it backwards, which was more accurate to that time period. “It’s such a subtle thing, but it’s a way in which you can look at somebody on camera and believe they’re in 1962,” said Ali. “Where if you make a different choice that is more contemporary, it’s going to be a hindrance to the audience really being able to believe me, and therefore believe the story.”
While in the chair with Davis on “Green Book,” the two collaborators talked for hours about the actor’s upcoming role on “True Detective,” where he would play the character Wayne Hays at ages 35, 45, and into his 70s, while the show moved back and forth between 1980, 1990, and modern times.
“Every time you saw my hair, it was the clearest indicator of what time we were in the story,” Ali said. Davis and Ali studied what was going on in Black culture in 1980, but also considered how current styles, unlike today, were a little bit slower trickle down to the South, “It had to feel a little bit dated,” said Ali. “Wayne was actually kind of conservative in his own way and not necessarily aware of what was going on in terms of fashion.”
Some of Davis’ most remarkable work includes serving as lead hairstylist on director Dee Rees’ “Bessie” and “Mudbound,” where the hairstylist was instrumental in Mary J. Blige’s transformational “makeunder.” He used both his extensive historical knowledge and incredible skill to render the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul — well-known for her assortment of colorful wigs and glam — almost unrecognizable.
His meticulously detailed looks for “Bessie,” another Rees film, are also a standout. “Bessie” was set in the 1920s, a period that saw Black women becoming increasingly comfortable wearing their hair in more unique styles. This was a time when chemical processing wasn’t used yet to straighten African American hair; instead, straightening was done thermally with hot irons, which the perfectionist Davis employed in the spirit of absolute authenticity. He also incorporated natural hair wigs that were perfect replicas of African American hair at the time.
“Bessie’s character has an arc, so we see her hair go from simple, to being more polished onstage, so the hair tells the story of her journey as a person,” Rees told IndieWire. “She’s comfortable with who she is and has a no-nonsense feel. Toward the end, you go back to that softer, less bold kind of style. Hair really tells you about the character before they open their mouth. It’s important to be able to create looks that feel authentic to the person and feel of the time, but don’t feel like you’re just doing a showcase of the time.”
Rees also appreciated the technical side of Davis’ craft. “I like Lawrence because he works with a high level of polish,” said Rees. “His immediate response, unlike most stylists, isn’t to just reach for hairspray. He’s able to create holes through sculpture and pinning so the hair isn’t weighed down by a ton of chemicals. It’s hot, so people aren’t sweating.”
The element of actor comfort is huge when doing period hair, especially on a project like “Underground Railroad,” shot in the hot sun of the South. Director Barry Jenkins, who just wrapped a 112-day shoot in Georgia with Davis said, “I’m almost positive none of the actors were sweating either based on the wigs he gave them.”
Jenkins knew the demands on his cast for his upcoming Amazon Prime Video series, which chronicles a young slave’s desperate bid for freedom, would go far beyond the heat and he told IndieWire he called around to make sure he found someone with not only the right experience, but also presence.
“I wanted someone who was really adept at working with Black hair and part of that was that I knew it would be a really difficult subject matter,” Jenkins said of selecting Davis for the job. “The first person who encounters the actors on most sets is from hair and makeup. I wanted somebody whose energy, whose presence, would ease the actors into the day and give them that calming creative space to get through the day. I mean that physically and emotionally. He was always a soothing presence.”
Davis’ work has become increasingly important at a time of explosive growth in the number of television series with Black casts, and a resurgence of natural Black hair onscreen and the red carpet. While his skill set is diverse, his body of work is dominated by movies and shows led by African American actors and actresses. It’s a bittersweet predicament; while he’s constantly employed, it’s in part because he’s one of very few prominent Black hairstylists working in Hollywood today.
Ali told IndieWire that he was his own hairstylist before working with Davis on “Green Book” and “True Detective.” “As a Black artist, you have to have the skill set to cut everyone’s hair. But it isn’t make or break if you’re not Black, if you don’t cut everyone’s hair, because you will have a career and only cut white people’s hair and be fine — even be considered the best in the business — and never deal with Black hair,” he said.
Consequently, with a disproportionate number of stylists in the industry unfamiliar with the intricacies of Black hair, many Black actors are left out in the cold. “I’ve definitely had actors who are not Caucasian say, ‘That Caucasian woman is not doing my hair,’” Kassell said. “We have a reverse situation [with ‘Watchmen’] where, with Lawrence and his team, I just had to trust that they could handle every kind of hair and they did. Whether it’s Frances Fisher or Jean Smart, that was under their umbrella.”
The business of hairstyling in Hollywood has always been primarily a white and male occupation, since the Westmore Family established Hollywood’s first makeup department in 1917. It wasn’t until the early 1970s that African American pioneers like Emmy-winning Robert Louis Stevenson — who styled films starring Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Angela Bassett, and Samuel L. Jackson — began to appear.
He was followed by another legend in Kenneth Walker, who styled some of Hollywood’s most prominent stars, including Denzel Washington, Julia Roberts, Bill Duke, Viola Davis, Laurence Fishburne, Regina King, and more. He served as hair department head for Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk,” before he passed away in May 2019.
And Davis, now in his prime, represents a continuation of a hair styling tradition that commenced 50 years ago. Jenkins summed it up best, when, seemingly anointing Davis the heir apparent to Walker, said: “Our hairstylist on ‘Beale Street’ passed away before we did ‘Underground Railroad.’ He was 83. I felt like we had to do a reset. Who was the young version of Kenneth Walker? That’s how we wound up with Lawrence.” —Tambay Obenson
Additional Reporting By Eric Kohn and Chris O’Falt
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