“Bad Hair” is about a killer weave.
Not “killer” as in “killer-looking,” but “killer” as in “slaughters people.”
The horror-satire takes place in 1989, and centers on Anna Bludso, played by Elle Lorraine (“Dear White People”), who is trying to carve out a career in the cutthroat world of music video television. Racist microaggressions abound at the channel where she works, which is meant to resemble MTV. At the start of the film, she is chucked from a job interview for looking too “urban.”
When a new boss named Zora, played by Vanessa Williams (“Ugly Betty”), tells Anna that getting a weave would help prevent instances like this, she listens, hoping for a promotion. It works, but, along with a new associate producer credit, Anna gets a parasite.
While the weave has an ugly habit of consuming other people, it does change how others see Anna; a lobby that was once full of narrowed eyes and cold shoulders from Anna’s white coworkers glitters with smiles. Yet this change in image has a cost, both for those unlucky enough to be eaten by the weave, and Zora herself, whose hair has become a monstrous creature.
Lorraine and the rest of the main cast, which includes Laverne Cox (“Orange is The New Black,”) Usher (“The Faculty”) and Kelly Rowland (“About Time”), rock every scene. The office politics of the channel simmer with the gossip, intrigue, competition and enduring friendships that make the characters yank at one’s heartstrings as the weave picks them off, one by one.
Writer-Director Justin Simien (“Dear White People”) perfectly conjures both the washed out, 1980s aesthetic of MTV and the occult, nightmarish world of a killer weave, which is given thematically-loaded roots in slave mythology.
“Bad Hair” combines the real horror of marginalization’s impact on the psyche with the imaginary horror of a weave that’s hungry for blood, exploring advancement and assimilation, perception and persecution and self-image and self-esteem, topics perhaps more relevant in 2020, the era of social media, than they were even in the image-obsessed 1980s.
As silly as it sounds, the weave is imbued with sheer terror through Simien’s immaculate visual command and Lorraine’s performance. There are stomach churning moments of body horror as well.
Yet, toward the end of the film, “Bad Hair” pours a gigantic helping of camp into the mix, and razor-sharp satire becomes dull shlock, ruining climactic moments that should burn with horror. The restrained, realistic scary mood is replaced with pulpy scenes meant to conjure laughter. It almost felt like watching “Get Out” become “Sharknado.”
Then, thankfully, the film finds its feet just in time for its ending, bringing the story’s themes of self-image, marginalization and the occult full circle.
“Bad Hair” is about trying to find professional and personal satisfaction while marginalized in America, using the unique device of a carnivorous hair-implant. While there is a (probably to-be-expected) excess of camp, the stellar talent behind the scenes makes the film worth watching, with themes that will have one reevaluating American life.
Daily Arts Writer Andrew Warrick can be reached at email@example.com.