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Sundance: ‘Bad Hair’ Team on Using Classic Horror Tropes to Tell a Provocative Black Story

Director Justin Simien and his cast discuss the influences on his Sundance premiere "Bad Hair," about a killer weave that just won't quit.

Bad Hair

Writer/director Justin Simien took the Sundance Film Festival by storm in 2014 with his racial satire “Dear White People,” winning the U.S. Dramatic Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Talent before it went on to grow into an acclaimed Netflix series. Now he’s back at Sundance with “Bad Hair,” a 1989-set horror movie starring breakout Elle Lorraine as the survivor of a scalp burn from a perm gone wrong. To impress her dreadlocked boss at a music-video TV show, she’s asked to get a weave — but the weave comes with a mind of its own.

Simien and Lorraine, along with cast members Ashley Blaine Featherson (“Dear White People”), Yaani King Mondschein (“Aquarius”), James Van Der Beek (“Pose”), and Kelly Rowland (“Empire”) recently stopped by the IndieWire Studio, presented by Dropbox, to discuss “Bad Hair,” which borrows from classic horror tropes to build a cult classic in the making.

“I follow my obsessions down the rabbit hole, and this one began with some conversations about, particularly a sub-genre of Korean horror films that deal with hair horror,” director Justin Simien said. “I felt like there was a uniquely American story there. I’m obsessed with the ’70s and ’80s psychological thrillers, satirical mashups, Brian De Palma movies, ‘Body Snatchers,’ ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ all those kind of movies.”

Simien took from his favorite horror movies to tell a uniquely black story that he feels is missing from the horror genre. “I felt like I haven’t really seen anything that’s pulling from all those different traditions, but is also black, and is using those sort of cinematic techniques to interrogate and make us look at the absurdities of what black women specifically, but what all marginalized people go through,” he said.

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“It’s a movie about a killer weave — spoiler alert — but the weave itself burst onto the national scene in 1989, specifically through the popularity of Janet Jackson, the ‘Pleasure Principle’ video first but then ‘Rhythm Nation’ and all those amazing Ebony covers,” Simien said. “I thought it would be an interesting way to look at ourselves but through a fantasy kind of lens. It’s easier sometimes to digest some of this stuff if we can be in a dream world, and I felt like I could make a dream world out of 1989.”

“Let’s not forget music and fashion at that time in black culture was alive and thriving. It’s really when it became rich,” star Kelly Rowland said.

Read IndieWire’s review of “Bad Hair,” which premiered as part of the festival’s Midnight section, here. The IndieWire Studio at Sundance will be open through Monday, January 27.

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