Writer-director Justin Simien has more experience in satire (“Dear White People”) than horror, and a better handle on lighthearted lectures than laughs.
Which is to say, so what if this supernatural satire “Bad Hair” is more about the message of the monster than the monster itself? It works.
And that monster? African American women’s hair, that one bit of “Black Girl Magic” that requires…assistance. Simien serves up genuine torture porn about what women with naturally kinky hair, “as nature intended, go through to Be Like Beyonce’.
Anna Bludso (Zaria Kelly) learned this lesson in childhood, that “relaxer” accident administered by her step-sister. She wears the scars of it into adulthood as she (Elle Lorraine of “Insecure”) struggles to fit in at Culture, a Black MTV facing major changes in Music Television in 1989.
All Anna wanted to be was on-air talent. But it was the hunky receptionist (Jay Pharaoh), the guy she sleeps with on the sly, who got that gig.
But her tinted-glass ceiling may be about to shatter. The pre-“woke” Woke workplace that Black Pride Preacher Edna (Judith Scott) presided over has a new corporate boss Grant (James Van Der Beek) and a new EVP of programming, former-model and “influencer” before that was a thing, Zora (Vanessa Williams, perfection).
Out goes Edna, and Zora — as intimidating and probably conniving as she is — hears out Anna’s pitch for a show that sounds exactly like “Total Request Live,” before that was a thing. They’ll go all-in on “hip hop and this new jack s—.” This makeover could fulfill bossman Grant’s vision.
“If this succeeds, it could change popular culture!”
Anna, behind on her rent and more bubbly than sexy or confident on camera, has one thing holding her back — her hair.
“Sisters get fired for less than that every day,” Zora purrs. To be “one of MY girls,” she’s got to “flow.” More precisely, her hair does.
The “creamy crack” (hair relaxer) won’t cut it. She needs to go for broke (literally) and go all-in on this new thing — “the weave.” And no weaver but Virgie (Laverne Cox of “Orange is the New Black”) will do.
The scariest scene in this “horror comedy” is the (slightly) exaggerated torture of picking “her,” how Virgie describes the hair that will be the New Anna, and weaving it in.
“My sources are exclusive.”
And her methods? “Essential oils” and curved needles more commonly used for surgical stitches? Exquisitely painful.
Simien sets up Anna’s new path as a contrast to the foster family of African American folklore professors (Blair Underwood. Michelle Hurd) who raised her. She may see eerie similarities between her story and a folk horror tale about “The Moss-Haired Girl.” Anna may wonder about what Zora’s weave, and that of a pop star (Kelly Rowland) who has extended her Janet Jacksonish music video career with her weave, have cost them.
But she will not know the “full” story until she’s gotten hers.
There’s just a hint of the delicious bitchiness of this office culture that Simien captures, and perhaps could have brought in a female co-writer to fluff up. The women are all “sister to sister” until the urge to backbite overwhelms them.
Williams, reviving her “Ugly Betty” edge, plays a character who’s a comment on her persona and her screen career. Fair-skinned and “beautiful” by “European” standards, Zora doesn’t sound like any of the music-savvy African Americans who are now her minions.
Zora’s attempt to leap into an argument with an enraged Social Justice Warrior Princess may be the funniest line Williams ever said. And it’s only a single two-letter “word” that Ms. Elocution and Poise plays as if it’s her first-time ever saying it out loud.
“Yo yo yo.”
Simien’s film has a cluttered feel, and in trying to steer clear of archetypes, he robs us of the satisfaction of a clearly-defined villain mentor vs. the more high-minded one. Zora may take credit for ideas and covet the spotlight Anna craves for herself, but she’s doing what the righteous but imperiously snobby Edna never would — hear Anna out, give her a chance to rise.
The “hair” with a murderous mind of its own is more funny than scary.
“Bad Hair” and its follicles are on their firmest ground just poking at the prejudice, pressure and unnatural (but admittedly lovely) beauty that women feel compelled to pursue to get noticed, get ahead and get theirs. The supernatural element feels unnecessary, save for the finale.
Still, hair that promises to deliver super powers, but that comes with supernatural trade-offs? That’s a killer concept and a satire that almost writes itself.
MPAA Rating: unrated, violence, sex, profanity, smoking
Cast: Elle Lorraine, Laverne Cox, Jay Pharaoh, Yaani King Mondschein, Usher Raymond, Blair Underwood and Vanessa Williams
Credits: Written and directed by Justin Simien. A Hulu release.
Running time: 1:42